Thursday, July 15, 2010

What Price Glory?

Baseball has always had more than its fair share of colorful, if not controversial, team owners.

Calvin Griffith famously, infamously, moved the Senators from Washington, DC, to Minneapolis to become the Twins because he was under the impression no blacks lived in Minnesota. Walter O’Malley broke the hearts of Brooklynites by moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles, while orchestrating the shift of the Giants from Manhattan to San Francisco. In so doing, O’Malley brought major league baseball to the west. Charlie Finley and Bill Veeck were unique in their times; Finley transplanted the Kansas City Athletics to Oakland and won three straight World Series, 1972-74. He was an early proponent of inter-league play and using colored baseballs. Veeck was no promotional slouch—he originated exploding scoreboards after home team home runs and once sent a midget up to bat, telling him to crouch real low and, under penalty of being shot, not to swing at any pitch. He walked on four pitches.

Even before his death Tuesday at 80, George M. Steinbrenner III was acknowledged as the most renowned and influential team owner, of any sport, of the last three decades. He and his fellow investors bought the once proud but foundering NY Yankees for less than $9 million in 1973. Today, after 11 pennants and seven world championships, the team is said to be worth more than $1.6 billion. The papers and airwaves have been full of mostly fond remembrances of Boss George, of how he changed the face of sports, of how he brought a business mentality to baseball, of his “win at all costs” mantra.

As I write this on the night of July 14, it’s appropriate to recall this is Bastille Day, the commemoration of the start of the French Revolution when the peasantry and middle class rebelled against the tyranny of the privileged aristocracy. Boss George, or should I say, King George, treated all who worked for him as serfs. It doesn’t bother me that he made Oscar Gamble shear off his afro, or Johnny Damon his long locks. Anyone fortunate to play a child’s game and consider that a profession, a profession that pays them way beyond the income of the average wage earner, should swallow hard and live with such petty demands. But no one should be fired because they delivered coffee 20 minutes too late for their boss’s patience, as Steinbrenner once did to a secretary. It’s permissible to require discipline and accountability, even to have no tolerance for critical mistakes. But no one should lead an enterprise where everyone works in fear.

I’m an avid Yankees fan. I relish the titles won in 1977, 1978, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2009 during the Steinbrenner years. But at what cost? At what price of human dignity? Too many Yankees fans are either too young or too forgetful to remember how Steinbrenner shamelessly dumped Dick Howser as manager after the team won 103 regular season games but lost three straight in the playoffs to the Kansas City Royals. How he publicly ridiculed players like pitchers Ken Clay and Jim Beattie after poor games. How he tormented Billy Martin by demanding he fire his friend, pitching coach Art Fowler, how he undermined the authority of pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, how he tried to discredit Dave Winfield, how he fired Yogi Berra after 16 games despite promising his job was safe for the season. Too young, too forgetful, or maybe too caught up in following a winning team instead of following a winning philosophy of life.

Yes, there are legions of stories about Steinbrenner’s charity, about his giving a second chance to people like Steve Howe, Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, and to those he offended. Even Yogi forgave him. I’m not ready, just yet.

Winning at all costs. That’s the same credo behind Nixon’s Watergate, behind the current GOP’s anti-Obama strategy of roadblocking all Democratic initiatives even if it means the masses suffer and the country stays mired in economic turmoil. Winning at all costs was behind Madoff and other recent financial debacles.

Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe being over 60 means I just want people to respect each other. I want to respect people considered to be icons. It’s okay for them to have some warts. They’re people, after all, and nobody really is perfect.

Watching an ailing, aging George Steinbrenner pass from vibrancy to slow death was grim spectacle. My parents, similarly, lingered beyond productive, cognizant years. I can relate to the Steinbrenner family’s feelings of loss. But Yankee fans need to step back and view in perspective the pact they made with Boss George. Just as we continue to debate the wisdom of the bombings of August 6 and 8, 1945—the ultimate win at all costs actions—so too must we weigh the reign of King George.

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