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George Steinbrenner's Evil Empire

Mark Heisler
Contributor
Mark Heisler, who avoids writing about himself in the third person when possible, preferring the royal “we,” is a regular Truthdig contributor and a former NBA-at-large reporter for the Los Angeles Times…
Mark Heisler

World without George, amen …

Death properly recalls the best in a man, even George Steinbrenner, who had Napoleonic ambition, a keen mind and a warm heart — especially with those he had just run over — to go with his free-range temper and ceaseless bluster.

Steinbrenner wasn’t merely an ogre, he was a one-man raison d’étre, like Dustin Hoffman as the arch-villain in “Hook” begging Peter Pan, whose blade is at his throat:

“What would the world be like without Captain Hook?”

Recognizing how dull it would be, Peter lowers his blade. Hook, of course, whips out a concealed dagger, obliging Peter to terminate him in the usual ambiguous way, in case of a sequel.

What will the world, to say nothing of the New York tabloids, be without The Boss?

Happily, the royal line continues.

Steinbrenner didn’t leave his heirs a baseball team but a financial empire that can never be rivaled, unless the game gets up the cojones to buck its players and put in a salary cap.

Until that day, the Yankees will be villains you can depend on (even if they dropped to No. 2 in the AL East last week).

That’s how the game works now. On one hand, you have the Yankees. On the other, you have the rest of the 30 teams.

That’s parity, as Steinbrenner left it.

At 80, the, quote, Boss, had been in failing health for years. With son-in-law/heir apparent Steve Swindal falling out of the line of succession — Jennifer Steinbrenner divorced him — George’s youngest son, Hal, took over.

Upon arrival, Hal presided over the ouster of Manager Joe Torre, the Yankees’ human face, who had won their only four titles in 20 years, if none since 2000.

When Torre resigned, calling the pay cut he was offered “an insult,” the heretofore press-shy Hal sneered, in a familiar style, on the back page of the New York Post, a familiar platform:

“Where was Joe’s career in ’95 when my dad hired him?”

Torre had been nowhere. So had the Yankees, who didn’t even make the playoffs from 1982 to 1994 while The Boss did his vaudeville act with his managers — Billy Martin came and went four times, with he and Steinbrenner doing a skit about it in Billy’s last introduction — and anyone else in his path.

When Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball in 1990 — for the second time — for hiring a private detective to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, the announcement drew a standing ovation at Yankee Stadium.

Not that Steinbrenner liked to flaunt his power, but he said “you’re fired” the way other people said “see you later.”

Yankee publicists, who were supposed to make sure the press took the line George wanted when hiring/firing Billy et al., were in special peril, disappearing almost as fast as managers. When their numbers went solidly into double figures, they threw a one-of-a-kind banquet for themselves.

Who had stories like theirs, as recounted by Sports Illustrated’s Franz Lidz?

[Bob Fishel, the longtime publicist Steinbrenner inherited, who fled after one season] was replaced by Marty Appel, whose chores, in the era before cable and satellite dishes, included doing play-by-play of entire games for Steinbrenner over the phone. (“George would demand to know why his reliever had thrown a curve with an 0-2 count,” Appel recalls. “I’d say, ‘George, I have no idea.’ ”) Appel was replaced by Mickey Morabito, who spent much of his three years in Steinbrenner’s employ pleading with sportswriters not to print anything Yankees manager Billy Martin said while drunk. Morabito was replaced by Larry Wahl, who had to recall 12,000 copies of the ’80 team yearbook because the lips on the full-color photo of Steinbrenner were “too red,” as Wahl was told by another Steinbrenner underling. Wahl was replaced by Dave Szen, the oft-used interim who is to the club’s p.r. office what Bob Lemon used to be to the dugout. Szen was replaced by Irv Kaze, who issued an apology to the city of New York on behalf of Steinbrenner after the Yanks lost the ’81 World Series. Kaze was replaced by Ken Nigro, who incurred George’s wrath for handing out I SURVIVED THE PINE TAR GAME T-shirts in the press box. Nigro was replaced by Joe Safety, who kept the Great Yankee Pee-Pee Scandal out of the papers for three days. On two nights in the same week, Kansas City police had charged two Yankees—Don Mattingly and Dale Berra—with public urination. “Same time, same security guard, same dumpster,” says Safety. When the story inevitably broke, the headline in a New York tabloid read, WHIZ KIDS.

As Harvey Greene, who went a heretofore unheard of four seasons in the ’80s, told Lidz, “The first time George fires you, it’s very traumatic.

“The three or four times after that, it’s like, ‘Great! I’ve got the rest of the day off.’ ”

If Steinbrenner was really close to New York Daily News cartoonist Bill Gallo’s depiction of him as a puffed-up Prussian general, complete with spiked helmet, spitting orders in a German accent, management took a new rational turn in the ’90s with The Boss serving his suspension and unable to stick his nose into every decision.A new heyday followed with the team of Brian Cashman, a young self-effacing GM, and Torre, who won four titles in his first five seasons from 1996 to 2000. By then, Torre, a gracious New York native, was more popular than the clumsy Steinbrenner, which wasn’t a good idea.

If the leadership was Steinbrennerian, the uniformed personnel, exemplified by the poised, classy Derek Jeter, were hard to dislike.

In a typical organizational divide, Yankee players, in Boston for the 2005 opener — where they had begun blowing a 3-0 series lead the previous fall — went to the top step of their dugout to applaud the Red Sox players who had just gotten their World Championship rings.

The YES [Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network] broadcast didn’t show the ceremony. Instead, correspondent Kimberly Jones described it, briefly.

Nevertheless, Steinbrenner’s contribution was undeniable, like Sherman’s to Georgia.

If the Yankees had long been the game’s mightiest franchise, it was Steinbrenner, not Jacob Ruppert, who stole Babe Ruth and built Yankee Stadium, who institutionalized their advantage in his last decade, until their rift with the rest of the game yawned like the Grand Canyon.

In the ’90s, the Yankees were only among the leaders in payroll, ranking No. 5-7-6-3-2-2-2-1-2-1.

As recently as 1992, the Oakland A’s, who would inspire the book “Moneyball,” a guide for teams that had little, outspent the Yankees.

As recently as 1998, someone else — the Baltimore Orioles — was No. 1.

In the next 10 years, according to a study by Biz of Baseball’s Maury Brown, the Yankees would spend $1.65 billion.

The No. 2 Red Sox were almost $500 million behind at $1.16 billion.

The Yankees started this season at $206 million — $44 million ahead of No. 2 Boston at $162 million. No one else was within $50 million.

The No. 4 Phillies, who won in 2008 and lost to the Yankees in 2009, were $65 million back at $141 million. As opposed to entertaining illusions about being a peer, they had just dumped Cliff Lee to afford Roy Halladay.

Only three others — the No. 3 Cubs, No. 5 Mets and No. 6 Tigers — were within $100 million of the Yankees.

As Colorado owner Jerry McMorris, whose Rockies averaged 3.7 million fans in their first nine seasons, once noted, they were all the Washington Generals to the Yankees’ Harlem Globetrotters.

With a deft political touch, Steinbrenner forged tacit alliances with the Players Assn., which shared his desire for an astronomical pay scale, and Commissioner Bud Selig, whose good intentions of leveling the playing field were offset by a mild-mannered, consensus-seeking nature that made him a protector of the status quo … and Yankee domination.

Happily or not for the game, it looks fair, at least in November (that’s how long the World Series runs now), with nine teams winning the last 10 World Championships.

Of course, the Yankees played in four of those and won two, even if that represented an underachievement.

The rest of the season, however, you see a game divided into sellers who hold fire sales for stars approaching free agency, and buyers, led by you know whom.

Noted the passionate but clear-eyed Peter Gammons on the MLB website before this season:

The three American League Cy Young Award winners prior to 2009 — Johan Santana, CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee — were all traded for financial reasons, and that doesn’t touch the six-month soap opera of another Cy Young winner, Roy Halladay, Toronto. And don’t forget that 2007 NL Cy Young recipient Jake Peavy was expressed to the White Sox last summer.

Two seasons after being one win away from the World Series, the Indians had to deal their leader, Victor Martinez, for two young, albeit talented, pitchers. The year after their dramatic run to the World Series, the Rays moved Scott Kazmir.

The Yankees don’t get everyone they want, just most of them, like Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Mike Mussina, Wade Boggs, Tino Martinez, Johnny Damon, Paul O’Neill, A.J. Burnett and Jason Giambi — to name some more recent ones, not to mention busts like Kenny Rogers, Chuck Knoblauch and Carl Pavano.

The Red Sox, the closest thing to a peer, lose free agents (Boggs, Damon, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez). The Derek Jeters, Mariano Riveras and Bernie Williamses remain Yankees as long as the Yankees want them.

The empire is worth billions — plural.

The new stadium was built at a cost of $1.2 billion.

Forbes projects the team’s value at $1 billion.

Yankees Entertainment & Sports is TV’s highest-rated regional sports network. At a projected value of $3 billion-plus, Fortune Magazine suggests it’s “the true gem” of the empire.

YES, privately held by the team with smaller stakes held by Goldman Sachs and former Nets owner Ray Chambers, was discreetly and briefly shopped in 2007, when Steinbrenner’s illness raised succession issues.

With $340 million in revenue the previous year, Fortune suggested its value at $3 billion, based on normal growth and an industry standard of 19 times cash flow ($140 million in 2006.)

YES doesn’t provide financial information, but by 2009, revenue had increased almost 20 percent to $419 million.

The team, itself, is run near the break-even point, with revenue going largely for payroll, luxury tax and the assessment that goes to small-market teams in revenue sharing.Of course, much of the profit from broadcasting has already been offloaded to YES, where no one but the Yankees can get to it.

An equal-opportunity hijacker, Steinbrenner gained 100 percent control of the team while putting up only 2 percent — $200,000 — of the $10 million price, borrowing $5.8 million and getting the rest from limited partners like Nelson Bunker Hunt and John DeLorean.

(As one, John McMullen, would say, “I came to realize there’s nothing quite so limited as being a limited partner of George Steinbrenner.”)

No one wins them all but the Yankees are inevitable.

Six months after the Phillies dumped Lee, the game’s top left-handed pitcher, to Seattle, the Yankees almost got him in a Mariner fire sale.

Lee wound up in Texas — amid speculation the Yanks will sign him as a free agent this winter.

On the bright (?) side, if Steinbrenner left Yankee fans a franchise for the ages, he left everyone else a team to hate for the ages.

They’re not merely the bulldozer they were when Jimmy Cannon compared rooting for them to “rooting for U.S. Steel.”

Now they’re like The Empire in “Star Wars,” with a Darth Vader face — that of the current Steinbrenner — braying some self-serving justification in 90-point type.

As the New York Times’ George Vecsey wrote:

Some fans have been rooting against the Yankees since their first couple of pennants in the 1920s but it was always a reflexive, defensive reaction: why don’t you go away? In this era of multi-million dollar contracts … [they] have become a true object of negative passion … a prime-time spectacle, Archie Bunker meets J.R. Ewing, and a whole new sub-species of baseball fan roots for them to squabble and stumble.

Vecsey wrote that in 1981, when disaffection with the Yankees was a love feast, compared with today’s fear and loathing.

Lucky us.

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