St. George and the Dragon: Thirty Years of Steinbrenner
The NY Daily News as part of a series to commemorate thirty years of Yankee ownership by George Steinbrenner had an interview with The Boss this weekend.
Before, I take a look at it, I just wanted to throw out a trivia question that I will answer at the end of this post. When did the first Steinbrenner-owned team win a championship?
The interview is a great slice of recent baseball history from one man's point of view. And when that man is George, it's like reading The Glory of Their Times on quaaludes. Here were some of my favorite moments:
GS (re. first day at Yankee Stadium): I walked in and saw flowers on every desk. Freshly cut flowers. I said, "What the hell is this? Is it Flowers Day? Is it Secretary's Day?" Somebody said, "Isn't that wonderful? Mr. Burke does this every day for us." (Former Yankee president) Mike Burke is a guy who I admired tremendously. He was a real heartthrob type of guy. Everybody liked him. I loved him, but for what I wanted, he didn't fit with me. When I saw the flowers, that was the trigger. I got involved.
GS (on the new CBA): Naturally we don't like it. This thing is aimed at the Yankees... I am a Bud Selig man. I consider him a good friend. He's a master at building people together. But while I'm loyal to Bud Selig, the biggest beneficiary in this whole plan are the Milwaukee Brewers. That doesn't seem quite right. I don't know how he sleeps at night sometimes.
The president of Yale (Richard Charles Levin), who I very much respect as an academician, is on the prized committee Selig set up to determine what the Yankees should pay to others. I said to him one night leaving a meeting, "Well, how much are you going to give Grambling? Because I know they need money and I know Yale is very, very wealthy..." (laughs) That was the end of that.
GS (on paying gambler Howie Spira to dig up dirt on then Yankee Dave Winfield): Bad hookup. Bad hookup. There were reasons, but no reason would've been good enough to have done that... I wish Dave Winfield and I hadn't pulled apart. There were things that have never become public. I will not get into them. I don't hold them against David. I've tried to make amends with him and I think we are friends today. I consider him one of the greatest athletes I've ever known.
GS (re. the sums that Yankees would now owe in revenue sharing-estimated at $55M for 2002-and how this would change how they do business) : It's got to change it...What we've tried to do is eliminate those perks and fringes that we would be granting without thinking. How many cell phones do we have out there? How many cars do we have out there?
DN: What really happened in that elevator fight with those two Dodger fans in the '81 Series?
GS: A lot of people tried to say it was phony and a put-on. You don't put-on what I did to my hand. It still hurts on some days.
GS (on his thirty years): I am a driver. I never let up on my guys. We have a pretty damn good organization, and they're all working. We don't take two or three weeks off at Christmas. We work, because they're all gaining on us. They're doing everything they can to gain on us.
There were the much publicized barbs pointed in Derek Jeter's direction:
GS (On the possibility of Jeter being named team captain): Joe (Torre) would like that right now, but I don't think now is the right time. I want to see Jetes truly focused. He wasn't totally focused last year. He had the highest number of errors he's had in some time. He wasn't himself.
As far as trying and being a warrior, I wouldn't put anyone ahead of him. But how much better would he be if he didn't have all his other activities? I tell him this all the time. I say, 'Jetes, you can't be everything to everybody. You've got to focus on what's important.' The charitable things he does are important. A certain amount (of his outside pursuits) are good for him and for the team, but there comes a point when it isn't, and I think we're getting close to that point.
He makes enough money that he doesn't need a lot of the commercials. I'm not going to stick my nose into his family's business. They are very fine people, (but) if his dad doesn't see that, he should see it. When I read in the paper that he's out until 3 a.m. in New York City going to a birthday party, I won't lie. That doesn't sit well with me. That was in violation of Joe's curfew. That's the focus I'm talking about.
Jeter's still a young man. He'll be a very good candidate for the captaincy. But he's got to show me and the other players that that's not the right way. He's got to make sure his undivided, unfettered attention is given to baseball. I just wish he'd eliminate some of the less important things and he'd be right back to where he was in the past.
For the record Jeter had 14 errors in 2002, his lowest total since 1999 and tied for the second lowest of his career. His fielding percentage was three points better than his career average. His fielding has gotten worse and it wasn't great to begin with (his Range Factor was 70 points lower than the league average whereas he was 20-30 better than the league average early in his career according to Baseball-Reference.com), but the errors weren't such a large problem. Also, he might want to work on his offense with his batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging average all down. His doubles, triples (his first season with none) and homers were down and his strikeouts up.
Besides Jeter is upholding a time-honored baseball tradition, cavorting like a frat boy. All the drinking never hurt Mickey Mantle's and Babe Ruth's careers. But he might want to take Mickey's (Rocky Balboa's trainer, not the mouse) advice and try to limit his female liaisons-"They're bad for the legs."
On Torre's past and his cadre of coaches:
GS: Joe is the greatest friend I've ever had as a manager. It's a great relationship. I don't want to destroy that, but I will tell you this: I want his whole staff to understand that they have got to do better this year. I will not see him drop back into the way he was before. Right now he's a sure-fire Hall of Famer. Before he came to the Yankees he didn't even have a job. Three different times as manager he didn't deliver, and was fired. Look how far he's come. He's come that way because of an organization, and he's got to remember that. I'm glad that Joe is an icon. He's a hell of a guy, a tremendous manager and tremendous figure for New York. I just want his coaches to understand that just being a friend of Joe Torre's is not enough. They've got to produce for him. Joe Torre and his staff have heard the bugle.
DN: Any coaches in particular who have to shape up?
GS: I'm not going to get into that. Those fellas know who they are.
DN: If the bugle has sounded, does that mean we will see changes?
GS: I see no movement, but I see them working harder. Our defense needs work, and part of our whole spring training will be devoted to defense this year. We had a wonderful season, but our pitching went to pieces at the end of the year.
For the record, Torre was fired three times as a manger before he signed with the Yankees in November 1995. But he had won a division title with Atlanta in 1982. He had a wining record with the Braves, 257-229, and was fired after a 80-82 season. He was about .500 with the Cardinals, 351-354. He had a winning record in three of his four complete seasons in St. Louis. The Mets are an entirely different story (286-420, .405), but I don't think Stengel could have won there. Speaking of Casey, he had gone through two franchises-Brooklyn (373-491 in three years) and Boston Braves (208-251 in 6)-and had one winning season (77-75 in 1938) and no appearances in the first division (as they used to say) to show for it. He came to the Yankees and things changed.
As to the individual or individuals on coaching staff who incurred The Boss's rage, it appears that the last statement would point to pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. Stottlemyre should be advised to develop a means of preventing his starting rotation from aging. Oscar Wilde had some thoughts on this matter, and perhaps a 2001 team pitcher in the attic at Yankee Stadium might help.
George also claims to have taken over a team that was a "doormat"\
DN: What were your initial impressions of the club you bought?
GS: When I first saw the team picture, it looked like a poster for birth control. (Mike) Kekich and (Fritz) Peterson had their wife-swapping deal. The Yankees were a doormat. I went to spring training and saw a lot of things I didn't like. I remember writing on an empty lineup card to Ralph Houk, "These men need haircuts." They didn't look like a team...When I came into baseball, we were a dog team.
The 1972 Yankees were 79-76, 6.5 games behind division champ Detroit in fourth place, far from a doormat. They had won 93 games two years earlier. Aside from acquiring Graig Nettles, renting Matty Alou for two-thirds of a season, promoting rookie Doc Medich to the rotation, and trying retreads Pat Dobson and Sam McDowell in the rotation for half a season, this was basically the same team in 1973 that it was in 1972. Dobson and McDowell collectively were 14-16 with a 4.08 ERA (the league average was 3.82) for the Yankees in 1973. George may want to remember things differently, but that doesn't make it so.
His most scathing comment were reserved for the management of the rival Red Sox:
DN: John Henry, your former partner and owner of the Red Sox, was quoted as saying after you signed Contreras that he "was and is a big risk." What's your response?
GS: That's just ridiculous. It makes him look stupid because they did everything they could to get him, including offering more money than we did. They offered $10 million to get him away from us. I give credit to Mr. Contreras. He wanted to play for the Yankees.
John Henry put down $1 million to buy into the Yankees. He gets back $4.7 million. I hope he does as well for his partners.
DN: Larry Lucchino, president of the Red Sox, called the Yankees "the evil empire" after the signing.
GS: That's B.S. That's how a sick person thinks. I've learned this about Lucchino: he's baseball's foremost chameleon of all time. He changes colors depending on where's he's standing. He's been at Baltimore and he deserted them there, and then went out to San Diego, and look at what trouble they're in out there. When he was in San Diego, he was a big man for the small markets. Now he's in Boston and he's for the big markets. He's not the kind of guy you want to have in your foxhole. He's running the team behind John Henry's back. I warned John it would happen, told him, "Just be careful." He talks out of both sides of his mouth. He has trouble talking out of the front of it.
Don't sugar-coat it, George. How do you really feel about Larru Lucchino?
The next article in the series consisted of friends and acquaintances of George relating George stories. Given that it's not George unplugged himself, it's not as good as the first article. However, it does have its moments. The first is from Lou Saban, Yankees president in 1981:
One night we were having a benefit for a police officer killed in the line of duty. George was in Tampa. I made a special presentation before the game. There was a full house, 54,000 people. We're up 5-0 in the third inning when the sky just opens up. It starts raining like I never could believe.
My phone rings.
"What's going on?" It's George. He's not happy. He wants to know how it looks. "The field is inundated," I tell him. So he hangs up on me.
Ten minutes later, the phone rings again. It's George.
"What's going on?"
"You know what's going on. It's pouring. Water is cascading into the dugouts." He hangs up on me again.
He calls two more times. He tells me to call the umpires and tell them to do everything they can to get the game in. He hangs up on me both times. The phone rings again. Guess who? He wants to know what's going on. I tell him it's still raining and looks terrible.
"Why didn't you know it was going to rain?" he says.
"George, I'm not the guy upstairs! I don't turn on the valves!"
"You're fired!" he says, and bang, hangs up the phone again.
George was also giving our head of security a hard time over something. After the game got rained out, we went into George's office and drank up his liquor. I got home at four in the morning. At 9 a.m. George is in his office in the Stadium asking Mary, my secretary, "Where's Saban?"
"He's not here. You fired him last night."
"What are you talking about? You tell him he better be in this office in an hour."
I got to the office at 1:30 p.m. He didn't say hello or goodbye. He was just so distraught the night got ruined (and he had to honor all those rainchecks). George has great feelings for people. He is a very tender guy. He does so many things that people don't know about. He's a true friend. The one question in my life, knowing George, is that I could never quite understand how he could do a 360 in a period of 24 hours. I always wondered about that.
The Lou Piniella stories are pure gold:
We were playing a game in spring training in my first year as manager, in 1987. George was sitting behind the dugout and said, "You know, I can manage. It's not that hard."
I said, "Fine. Let's do it. From where you are sitting, my third base coach can see you. Go ahead and give him the signs and I'll just sit here in the dugout and watch the game and see how good you manage."
After the first two baserunners got thrown out, he said, "OK, you can manage." He's so competitive and demanding, but you know that going in. I don't know how many times he called me. One time I was in the dugout in California and the phone rings. He said, "I'm sitting here watching on my big screen TV in Ocala, and I just want to know, 'Whose side are you on?' I'm looking at (Don) Sutton on the mound, and he's cheating. He's got stickum or sandpaper or something, and you're just sitting there."
So I said, "George, what's the score?" We were up 3-2 or 4-2.
Then I said, "Who's pitching for us?"
He said, "Tommy John."
And I said, "Well, who do you think taught Sutton how to cheat?"
Trivial answer: Steinbrenner owned the 1961-62 American Basketball League-champion Cleveland Pipers. He lured Jerry Lucas away from Ohio State, hired the first professional black coach John McLendon-who quit when George became too domineering and was replaced by Bill Sharman-, and failed in attempt to join the NBA as an expansion team at the end of the season (mostly to get Lucas into the NBA). The NBA and ABL had talked merger but when a deal was reached with Cleveland, the NBA announced that they would enter as an expansion team and merger talks were off. The move was blocked in the courts by the ABL, the Pipers folded, and the league followed suit before the end of the year.