If Steinbrenner got the credit for building the first championship teams in 1977 and 78, he also deserved the discredit for what followed. The team made the World Series only once in the 1980s, losing in six games to the Dodgers in 1981. That was the time Steinbrenner showed up before a game with his hand bandaged and a story about how he fought two Yankee haters in an elevator. No one ever quite believed it. It was also the year he called his newest free-agent millionaire, Dave Winfield, Mr. May, and issued a public apology to the fans for not winning the Series.
The truth is Steinbrenner never had a clear idea of how to build a winning team. When a few selected free agents won twice, he decided that a whole team of them would be even better. That led to 13 years without a playoff appearance as Steinbrenner kept writing absurd checks for a string of Ed Whitsons and Steve Kemps. He also gutted the farm system, trading away top prospects and getting little in return.
The only victory he scored during those years was in 1989, when President Ronald Reagan wiped his criminal record clean with a presidential pardon.
The Yankees bottomed out in 1991, when they finished last. But a renaissance was on the way, thanks to baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, who banned Steinbrenner from baseball for life. His sin this time was paying $40,000 to a small-time gambler and professional low-life named Howie Spira to dig up dirt on Winfield, with whom Steinbrenner had become disenchanted. As is frequently the case with lifetime bans handed out to people not named Pete Rose, this one was over in just two years. But without that suspension, the Yankees may never had embarked on their great era of success beginning in 1995, when they made the playoffs for the first time since 1981.
While Steinbrenner was out of commission, Gene Michael rebuilt the farm system and started building a winning team built of carefully selected free agents, talent acquired in trades, and, beginning in the mid-90s, some home-grown talent.
Bernie Williams was the first one to come up, in 1991. Steinbrenner had tried to trade him before his suspension, but the front office held firm and he became a fixture in center field for the next 15 years. Mariano Rivera, initially a starting pitcher, was brought up and installed in the bullpen. Jorge Posada graduated from the farm system to take over as catcher. And in 1996, Derek Jeter, another home-grown talent, became the Yankee shortstop.
When Steinbrenner came back, his sole dramatic act was to fire manager Buck Showalter after he got to the playoffs in 1995 and hire Joe Torre, who was greeted by tabloid headlines calling him “Clueless Joe.”
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George Steinbrenner waves to the crowd during a parade to celebrate the Yankees' World Series victory in 1999.
But The Boss was slowly fading away. In 2003, he passed out at the funeral of his friend and former Cleveland Brown quarterback Otto Graham. His public appearances dwindled to almost none, and when he spoke in public, it was in clichéd generalities. Most of his statements were issued by his press agent, Howard Rubenstein.
By 2007, stories began to appear that the man who had been so much bigger than life probably had dementia.
His new stadium was still a year away from its 2009 opening, and it was by no means certain that Steinbrenner would be there to see the day. Even his enemies could be sad at that. He venerated the Yankee brand, expanding monument park and making his franchise the best and most famous in sports, a team that may not have won every year, but always contended, the team that was again what it had been before he bought it — the Damned Yankees.
There are people he crushed along the way who won’t mourn his passing, but they’ll miss him. We’ll all miss him.
NEW YORK (AP) - Yankees fans showed Don Mattingly the love from the moment he took the lineup card to home plate Wednesday. Hiroki Kuroda, though, wasn't feeling nostalgic when facing his old team.
George Steinbrenner: 1930-2010
New York Yankees owner known as "The Boss"
Video: George Steinbrenner, 1930-’10
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