Remember when look-alike Kevin Kline replaces the ailing president in “Dave,” only he’s infinitely more personable and thoughtful than the real president was? Not only does Kline’s character prevent a nationwide panic, he gives funny speeches that inspire the nation. He solves the budget crisis in five hours. He introduces an ambitious plan to find a job for every American citizen. And nobody ever suspects a thing.
Maybe the same chain of events didn’t happen to George Steinbrenner, but clearly, something is going on here. George hasn’t seemed like himself for 17 months, not since the Yankees outwitted the Red Sox for the 15,432nd time by clandestinely winning the A-Rod Sweepstakes. When Boston owner John Henry complained about New York’s staggering payroll after that trade, George delivered the most biting quote in the history of the Sox-Yankees feud:
“We understand John Henry must be embarrassed, frustrated, and disappointed by his failure in this transaction. Unlike the Yankees, he chose not to go the extra distance for his fans in Boston.”
Classic George — he loved twisting the knife with Boston fans. The Red Sox had two months to acquire A-Rod, couldn’t and wouldn’t do it, and then they left the door open just enough for the Yankees to come barging in. When it came right down to it, Steinbrenner always went the extra distance for his fans. If he could kick the Red Sox as it was happening and inject some of his trademark pomposity, all the better. I remember reading that quote two winters ago and hanging my head.
And that’s what made the last eleven months so inexplicable. Maybe he’s old, maybe he’s worn down after all, he did turn 75 this week. But follow this time line with me:
August 2004: New York Magazine runs a flattering profile of Brian Cashman, including some pointed George-bashing and Mrs. Cashman’s revelation that Brian “would like to go to Boston and win the World Series, that would be any man’s dream, to go up there and become the god of Boston.” George’s response? Nothing.
September 2004: Trailing the Yanks by double figures for most of the summer, Boston wins 20 of its next 22 to pull within two games and we hear barely a peep from George. If this happened in the late ’70s, George would have framed Javy Vasquez for three liquor store robberies, derisively started calling A-Rod “A-Fraud,” released nine hostile statements per day, railed against ESPN for the fact that “they show more SportsCenter highlights of us when we’re losing,” and belittled Cashman and Torre to the point that they would have met in a parking garage at 3 a.m. to plot his assassination.
October 2004: Holding a 3-0 lead in the ALCS against the Red Sox, the Yankees blow leads in Games 4 and 5 at Fenway, then fall flat in Games 6 and 7 at Yankee Stadium. Not only was this the biggest collapse in the history of professional sports, not only did the Red Sox topple the Yankees in a do-or-die situation for the first time in nine decades, but they celebrated on the field at Yankee Stadium. Thirty years ago, this chain of events would have caused Steinbrenner to snap like Sly Stallone at the end of “Copland.” In 2004? He released the following statement after the game:
“I want to congratulate the Boston team. They did very well. They have a great team.”
Ummmmm what? Where was the vitriol? Where was the sarcastic throwaway comment like, “Hey, when you’re beating someone like a rented mule for 80 years, the odds eventually swing in their favor”? Where was the story leaked to Buster Olney about how George destroyed three deli trays, four plasmas and two leather chairs in his suite during the game? Where was the announcement to Yankee fans that the public guillotining of Torre, Mel Stottlemyre, Flash Gordon and Jason Giambi would take place Oct. 28 in Times Square? Where was the AP Headline, “Yankees GM Cashman Missing for 3 Days, Family Said To Be Increasingly Concerned”?
December 2004: After Boston won the World Series, everyone assumed money wouldn’t be an object for the Yanks — they would trade for Randy Johnson (the No. 1 starter they sorely needed), spend $140 million on Carlos Beltran (the center fielder and leadoff hitter they sorely needed), then sign Pedro for $75 million (just as an added insult to Red Sox fans). As it turned out, they did trade for the Big Unit, but they allowed Beltran and Pedro to sign with (drumroll please) the Mets.
The New York Mets????
In his absolute prime, would Steinbrenner ever have allowed his crosstown rivals to sign two marquee free agents like that? This was the moment when I started entertaining the possibility that he was being kept alive on a respirator in a secret hospital room underneath Yankee Stadium, with his body double from “Seinfeld” pretending to be him in public.
January-March 2005: When the Balco Scandal breaks, Giambi emerges as the poster boy of baseball’s impossible-to-ignore steroids problem, a public relations disaster that eventually leads to tougher drug testing policies and a goofy congressional hearing that gave dozens of politicians a chance to get face time and pretend they gave a crap about what was going on. Poor Giambi ends up holding a press conference and repeatedly apologizing for well, something. He won’t say what. But if you read between the lines, here’s what he probably meant:
“Over the last few seasons, dating back to my Oakland days, I took so many steroids that my pituitary gland pretty much self-combusted like Duran Duran in the mid-’80s. These steroids improved my performance to the point that I landed a nine-figure contract from the Yankees. Unfortunately, I can’t take steroids anymore, so here’s what you’re getting for the next five years — a .250 average, 20-25 homers, crummy defense and somebody to boo lustily at every home game. Plus, I killed your team’s budget to the point that the Yanks didn’t sign Beltran this winter. Again, I apologize. My bad.”
Imagine George’s reacting to Giambi’s pseudo-apology back in the day? This is the same vindictive blowhard who became so disenchanted with Dave Winfield’s play during the mid-’80s — with Winnie in the prime of a Hall of Fame career, by the way — that he paid a scumbag named Howie Spira $40,000 to dig up unflattering dirt on him. Now Giambi basically dupes him to the tune of $120 million and gets away with it? And remains on the team? And they can’t find out a loophole to void his contract? And he’s allowed to live? And George just shrugs his shoulders and moves on?
For me, this was the Tyson/McBride moment of the Steinbrenner Era. Old George never would have allowed Giambi to get away unscathed — he would have flipped out, responded in a drastic fashion and made an uncomfortable situation worse, almost like an abusive, button-pushing family member at Thanksgiving dinner who keeps bringing up someone else’s drinking problem or failed marriage. New George expressed his disapproval, tried to correct the situation through the proper channels, then threw up his hands and accepted his fate. In other words, he was just another rich owner wronged by a rich athlete. I never thought we would see the day.
The question remains: What prompted such a noticeable change in demeanor? Is George mellowing in his old age? Is he failing physically? When he fainted at Otto Graham’s funeral in December 2003, did he have some sort of epiphany? Did he have some sort of “Regarding Henry” type accident that never leaked to the general public? Or is he intentionally toning things down in his twilight years to help his Hall of Fame case?
Nobody knows. Regardless, his relative silence during the 2005 season has been absolutely mind-blowing. When poor Giambi was floundering to the point that he could have changed his name to “Jason Booooooooooooooooooooo,” George remained suspiciously quiet. When the Yankees squandered 19 of their first 30 games, for the first time in 30 years, Yankee fans were more upset than George (who seemed more interested in his Kentucky Derby horse). When a below-.500 June spawned an infamous “organizational meeting” in Tampa last week — which had the potential to play out like the climactic scene from a mafia movie, given George’s checkered history under this level of duress — nothing happened other than two washed-up relievers’ getting their walking papers.
Now the Yankees are 43-39, and look lifeless and unhappy during games. There’s an alpha dog battle between Jeter and A-Rod that hasn’t been resolved. Johnson and Posada despise one another to the point that Johnson won’t pitch to him anymore. Torre carries himself with the confidence of a stunned father who just saw his two daughters flashing their breasts on a “Girls Gone Wild” video. Even when something good happens — like Bernie’s dramatic insurance homer in Detroit Saturday, or the team’s comeback Monday against Baltimore — the dugout celebrates like it’s a Celebrity All-Star Softball Game and they’re ticked off that their agents convinced them to play, but now they have to pretend to be excited because Dave Coulier just went deep. And New George seems OK with everything that’s happening.
But here’s the weird thing: I kinda miss Old George. Say what you want about the guy, but at least he was interesting. At least he cared about the Yankees to the point that, much like OJ Simpson and Ike Turner, he loved them a little too much. When he still had his fastball, he reminded me of every wealthy country club jerk for whom I ever caddied in high school — bombastic, belligerent, sadistic, never once letting you forget who he was and what he could do. His meltdowns were like volcano explosions — staggering, frightening, awesome to watch. And he was always his own worst enemy, to the point that he remains the only owner suspended for an entire season not once, but twice.
Then again, the Steinbrenners and Trumps of the world are successful for a reason. For instance, George resuscitated a moribund Yankee franchise and took full advantage of free agency (in the mid-’70s) and the revenue sharing loophole (in the mid-’90s), even creating his own cable network to supply the team with a never ending flow of revenue. Under George’s watch, the Yankees suffered just three losing seasons in 30 years. They won six titles, topped 100 wins seven different times, topped 90 wins another eight times. He built one of the most entertaining teams of the century (those “Bronx Zoo” teams in the ’70s), as well as one of the greatest teams ever (the 1998 team that finished 125-50).
For better and worse, Steinbrenner redefined the owner’s role in professional sports. Back in the old days, owners stayed in the background for the most part, and you could imagine many of them conducting their business in dark offices (like the owner of the New York Knights in “The Natural”). George made it possible for the Era of the Attention Hog, which exploded during the past few years and gave us an unparalleled amount of unintentional comedy — Mark Cuban high-fiving his own players and charging the court during fights, Robert Sarver dunking off trampolines, Jerry Jones’ face lift, Bob Kraft mistakenly giving his Super Bowl ring to the Russian president (and then pretending it was intentional), and even Dr. Jerry Buss balancing his champagne covered toupee on his head during the 2000 NBA Finals. Remember, none of this stuff could have happened had George not paved the way.
Throw in the six rings, the fact that he dressed and acted like Thurston B. Howell, the way he bawled like a baby after every Yankees title, his sadomasochistic relationship with Billy Martin, his Burt Reynolds-caliber rug and everything else, and there’s absolutely no doubt that George belongs in the Hall of Fame. Cooperstown should be a place where baseball fans of future generations can stroll around and learn the history of the game. Love him or hate him, few people had a bigger imprint on that history from 1974 through 2004 than George Steinbrenner.
So what happens now? During last month’s press conference to announce New Yankee Stadium, media members were shocked by Steinbrenner’s rambling answers, with the N.Y. Daily News describing him as “teary-eyed,” “grandfatherly” and “frail.” When a reporter asked about making the new left field shorter for Alex Rodriguez, George replied that “A-Rod doesn’t need any help. But I don’t think the Yankees did right by Babe Ruth when he was here. They should have been better to him. We’ll be better to A-Rod when he gets ready to retire.”
Hey, there was a time when the mere thought of a washed-up Steinbrenner giving incoherent answers and reeking of tapioca would have delighted me to no end. But I felt for the old man this time around, just like I felt bad for Michael Myers in “Halloween 6” when he was stumbling around Haddonfeld trying to kill people half his age. At some point as a great villain, you need to hang it up and turn it over to the next generation. Fortunately, George realized this. Only two weeks after that press conference, Steinbrenner announced that he would turn control of the Yankees over to his son-in-law, Steve Swindal, and that it would be happening sooner than later.
Still, I think the Yankees screwed this one up. Once the old man started slipping, they should have followed the lead of the Corleones after Don Vito’s near-assassination — pretended he was fine, limited his exposure and used the old man’s shadow to maintain their grip on the other families. Every once in a while, they could have trotted him out for a public appearance where he didn’t say much, just to let everyone know that the old man was kicking. Heck, they could have stolen from “Dave” and hired an impersonator to chew out the coaching staff, belittle reporters and complain to Bud Selig. Maybe Brian Dennehy could have played the part. Or Bruce McGill. Or even Ken Howard.
Now? It’s too late. And the baseball world has been turned upside down. The Boston Red Sox are the defending champions. The Yankees are threatening to return to their darkest days since the Mel Hall Era in the late ’80s. And the one man who would have moved heaven and earth to prevent these two events from happening — the great George Steinbrenner — is quietly planning his retirement in Florida, just another wealthy senior citizen moving into the final phase of life.
(You know assuming he’s still alive.)
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.