When Marcus Antony gives his famous oration over the corpse of his good friend Julius Caesar in William Shakespeare’s brilliant play, he says, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” As a Mets fan and a New Yorker, I cannot think of better words to be said over a man that I and many of my fellow city dwellers loved to hate.
Whatever I think and feel about the New York Yankees is all because of Mr. George Steinbrenner, who died of a heart attack today at 80 years of age. Before he swooped in and bought the team in 1973, the Yankees were pretty much a faded flower in my town. The New York Mets had won the World Series in 1969 and almost did again in 1973, while the Yankees seemed to be perpetually out of it in the AL East.
Along came a big fat spider named George, and he spun more than a few webs to get his team going in the right direction. He spent lots and lots of money through a new thing called “free agency,” while the Mets sat on their hands and then went about trading away members of the team I loved, including the still unforgivable deal that sent Tom Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds.
Anyway, sitting on the other side of town and seeing the team that I hated win the World Series in 1977 (and again in 1978), well, what could a good Mets fan do but grumble about how George bought the championship – which he did – and set the Yankees on course for greatness once again.
Steinbrenner, with the help of general manager Brian Cashman, extended the old Yankee dynasty into the 1990s, when they captured three championships, and then in the 2000s, when they won it all in the year 2000 (against my beloved Mets) and again in 2009.
Most New Yorkers (Yankees and Mets fans) got into the soap opera of “As Steinbrenner Turns” because it was the stuff back page headlines are made for. How many times could he fire Billy Martin? As many as he could hire him: five. How many threats could he make about firing players? How far would he go to get the dirt on one of his own players (think Dave Winfield)? Oh, how the drama played out and how the fans sucked it up.
Despite all his faults and his cementing of the Yankee blue blood mentality and legacy, we working class Mets fans have to hand it to the old coot. He was a feisty old general who got the troops moving and winning battles, and sometimes ultimately, the war. NY Daily News sports cartoonist Bill Gallo even created an alter ego, General Von Steingrabber. This barking orders German general was featured in many hilarious cartoons in the paper. Apparently, Steinbrenner appreciated the humor behind it and Gallo’s supreme talent for capturing the essence of the man and the events of the time.
George was the guy we liked to blame for everything. He was at fault for all the wrongs suffered by the Mets and their fans. He stole everyone from Catfish Hunter to Reggie Jackson to A-Rod over the years in our minds (and probably in the minds of plenty of other baseball teams’ fans too). He was like the Darth Vader of baseball, and you could just imagine those confrontations with Billy Martin, battling each other using light sabers (to make the vision complete).
Through it all, George did something for baseball that, if nothing else, made it exciting and stirred up controversy galore. He was responsible for giving baseball a much needed shot in the arm, and the whole modern era of free agency and the shape of the way teams are today are thanks to him.
Of course, then we get back to that evil Shakespeare thing. There are those who think (and not just Red Sox and Mets fans) that George is the cause of the lack of balance in the game today. There will always be the haves and have-nots in Major League Baseball, based on money. If we want to blame anyone for ruining baseball with buckets of cash, we can look no further than to George Steinbrenner, the King of Cash, for doing just that.
I guess the way I’ll remember him is when he hosted Saturday Night Live. Man, did that take a lot of courage even for a guy with an ego as bloated as his. I will also remember him as he was lampooned in Seinfeld by Larry David, making him seem more cartoonish than Bill Gallo. But the bluster was all in good fun. And maybe that is the nicest way to remember the man who changed the face of baseball forever, even if he left more than a few casualties in his wake.