As a lifelong Red Sox fan, my perspective on George Steinbrenner is slanted. To me, he was the leader of the “evil empire,” the annoying, meddlesome, yet admittedly successful owner of the hated New York Yankees. And that was what rankled Red Sox fans: Steinbrenner bought the Yankees in 1973 and rejuvenated them. Until Red Sox fans finally had their own World Series victory to crow about in 2004, we had to endure thirty years of playing second fiddle to Steinbrenner’s team. Even worse, no matter how many times Steinbrenner won the World Series, you could tell he wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to keep winning it, every year if he could, as if he truly believed he and his team were entitled to being champions in perpetuity.
Steinbrenner’s persistent, virtually insatiable pursuit of victory was perhaps his defining attribute. It’s an attribute that made him distinctly American, an attribute that helped him to thrive both in business and under the spotlight of the New York media. Not many people may have liked Steinbrenner as a person, but you had to respect the man for his intense drive and his commitment to winning.
His greatest strength – his appetite for winning – may have been a blessing for fans from the Bronx, but it was much less so for fans of a level playing field. Baseball has always been a business, of course, but Steinbrenner brought even more of a corporate raider mentality to the game. If you were a fan of a small market team, say the Oakland Athletics or the Minnesota Twins, you loathed the way Steinbrenner pursued free agents and lured away some of your best players with lucrative contracts. Steinbrenner didn’t have to play “money ball” or devote much care and feeding to developing talent in the minor leagues; he simply pursued the best players money could buy, and transferred (as much as he could) his hunger for victory to them.
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Steinbrenner was an impatient man, a driven man, a decidedly imperfect man. Yet he did have a sense of humor, as memorably captured in his “Lite Beer from Miller” commercials of the 1970s, in which he alternately fired and hired manager Billy Martin (in a case of art imitating life). He also gave quietly to charity and had a tender streak for hurt or disadvantaged athletes. He was, quite simply, a man of multitudes, one who made unwise decisions and said unwise things as he brawled to keep his place at the top.
With his TV network, his franchising and deal-cutting, and his inflated team payrolls (to go along with his inflated ego), Steinbrenner changed baseball. He elevated its profile even as he tipped the playing field to his advantage. We Red Sox fans hated him for that, but now that we’ve won two of our own World Series while carrying a team payroll that this year is second only to the Yankees’, perhaps we can now admit that, for a time, he was our daddy. Maybe not a daddy dearest, but definitely a daddy.
This article was also published on Huffington Post.