In the past, he’s been painted as a villain, particularly in these parts. But today, he’s simply a tremendous loss to the world of baseball.
George Steinbrenner operated as an alienating presence in the universe of Major League Baseball, withstanding controversy after public squabble after outrageous signing en route to becoming a baseball legend that is now synonymous with pinstripes. He had many fans and just as many adversaries, but everything he did was out of an insatiable passion for the game. For that, Steinbrenner is the prototype for how this game should be run.
The baseball maverick died at the age of 80 of a massive heart attack on the morning of the 2010 All-Star Game, and immediately, all of the sports presses were halted in his honor. For several hours, everyone from horse trainer Nick Zito to baseball commissioner Bud Selig to ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale offered words of commemoration and praise. Steinbrenner’s influence was so broad that it literally affected the entire world of sports, from beginning to end.
"Few people have had a bigger impact on New York over the past four decades than George Steinbrenner," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told ESPN.com. "George had a deep love for New York, and his steely determination to succeed combined with his deep respect and appreciation for talent and hard work made him a quintessential New Yorker."
The statistics help cement Steinbrenner’s legacy as one of, if not the most, prolific owners in the history of baseball. He bought the Yankees for about $10 million in 1973 and transformed the franchise into the $1.6 billion empire it is today. Since 1973, the pinstripes boast the league’s best winning percentage. In just over 37 years at the helm in New York, Steinbrenner led the team to seven championships, 11 pennants and 16 division titles.
As Steinbrenner’s health began to decline in 2007, he put sons Hank and Hal in charge of the franchise, but he still remained actively involved in team operations. He cared too much not to be involved. It was that passion — that desire to be great — that led to numerous conflicts with managers and players, but it was that same passion that helped him achieve unheralded success.
In retrospect, moves that may have seemed brash make sense. Steinbrenner operated strictly in adherence to a "by any means necessary" credo. He would do whatever it took, whatever the cost. He’d let Joe Torre walk away from New York; he’d even fire the legendary Yogi Berra just 16 games into the 1985 season.
At the time, the firings and hirings may have seemed personal, but they weren’t. Each move was put under the microscope, but there was no need. Every move was geared toward the same ulimate purpose; everything Steinbrenner did was in the name of winning.
"George was 'The Boss,' make no mistake," Berra told ESPN.com. "He built the Yankees into champions, and that's something nobody can ever deny. He was a very generous, caring, passionate man. George and I had our differences, but who didn't? We became great friends over the last decade and I will miss him very much."
Steinbrenner cared too much to lose; as a result, he’d do anything, spend anything or say anything to put the best possible team on the field. For that, New York fans should be eternally grateful.
Steinbrenner made the Yankees into the empire they are today; he made them into the model by which, more often than not, all other teams are measured. He made sure that every player who put on a Yankees uniform knew it was an honor, single-handedly cultivating the sense of prestige that surrounds one of baseball’s most successful franchises.
Every team should be so lucky to have an owner like Steinbrenner — someone who, above all, strove to give the people exactly what they wanted.