With Spring Training here and baseball’s regular season about five weeks away, King George can barely contain himself. And no, I’m not referring to former owner and baseball fanatic President Bush (although I have noticed, with a degree of bemusement, how some bloggers such as Andrew Sullivan have taken to calling him that).
No, in baseball there is only one real king. It’s not even Bud Selig, a former owner who has somehow occupied the commissioner’s chair for over a decade despite having a World Series cancelled, a steroid-infested era, and competitive imbalance in his game.
In baseball, the King is Yankees’ owner George M. Steinbrenner III. Don’t let a five-year championship drought of his team fool you. When it comes to owners, the former Cleveland shipbuilder is still the most notable in professional sports.
The Boss, as he has come to be called, is not in the mood to be discreet about his ambitions for the season. He has predicted a World Series title.
Apparently the last five years were just appetizers to the main course. You’d think bringing in Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield over the past few seasons would have all but guaranteed victory. Certainly, Steinbrenner thought so.
But this year will be different. Johnny Damon is now in pinstripes. Though I doubt he will be able to create miracles. I don’t recall the Red Sox in the World Series last season (although one could forgive Steinbrenner for thinking otherwise, since many national pundits appeared to forget about baseball once Boston and New York were eliminated from the playoffs).
This is really just a drama that we have all seen before. New York was a perennial World Series participant in the 1950s, early 60s and mid-70s. Then the 1980s arrived, and George Steinbrenner attempted to personally will the Yankees to greatness. The Yankees made one playoff appearance in the decade. It didn’t matter that New York brought in future Hall of Famers such as Dave Winfield and Ricky Henderson, or that the team hired and fired Billy Martin more times than can be accurately counted.
The brilliant writer Roger Angell summed up the Yankees’ performance in the decade perfectly in the 1994 Ken Burns documentary Baseball. “Like many people he fooled himself that he could arrange for success; he could guarantee it,” Angell said in a section of the film. “And when that didn’t happen he really lost track of the whole thing. He didn’t really want to let his ballplayers play the game. He didn’t want to put them out on the field and wait and see what happens.”
Steinbrenner quieted many of his critics in the 1990s by sticking with a manager and rebuilding the farm system. With that (and a natural assortment of acquisitions from the free agent market) the Yankees won championships.
But no success lasts forever. It’s possible the Yankees will win it all in 2006. But Steinbrenner has once again placed remarkable expectations on his club. He has also given them, in his mind, every resource necessary to be successful.
Whenever the Yankees make a dramatic acquisition, I find myself thinking of Angell’s remarks. Steinbrenner doesn’t want to watch baseball. All he wants to do is celebrate victory. And yet I wonder, with a payroll that dwarfs nearly every other club in the game, if those victories are truly satisfying.
Is it really a great win a 275-pound high school wrestler dismantles a lightweight?
Is it really thrilling when a player scores 113 points against an ill-equipped defense in basketball?
Sadly for Steinbrenner, these are questions we haven’t had to ask lately.
Baseball season is almost here.
George’s castle may be crumbling.