He belongs on the list of things you never thought you'd miss, like the train that used to rumble past your apartment or that guy in your office who always laughed too loudly at his own bad jokes. As irritating as they were, you have to admit that it was hard to adjust to the quiet when they were gone? If you weren't a Yankees fan, and maybe even if you were, George Steinbrenner seemed just like that, a big noisemaker of an owner, in love with the sound of his own voice and insanely demanding. He added another layer of tension to the constant Yankees drama with his mere presence, but we can see now that it was far preferable to his absence.
The game just isn't as fun without the Boss, who at 78 has lost the roar that once translated into front-page headlines in the New York City tabloids and reverberated throughout baseball. Age and infirmity keep him mostly at home in Tampa. Six months ago he officially turned over control of the team to his two sons, Hal and Hank, although he had moved into the background a few seasons before that. At his rare appearances, such as his trip to the Yankees' home opener at their new ballpark last month, he makes no public statements, and fans catch only brief glimpses of the man who once had so much to say.
The Yankees, who won six World Series titles with the Boss bellowing from the owner's box but missed the playoffs last year for the first time since 1993, find themselves floundering again early in the season, worst of all having been slapped around repeatedly by the Red Sox. Imagine what the impulsive, impatient Steinbrenner would have said and done if he were still in charge. He probably would have fired Joe Girardi as manager, and—who knows?—maybe rehired him by now. Underachieving free agents CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira would already have received their first verbal swift kick from Steinbrenner, who expected an immediate return on his high-salaried investments. The man who once called pitcher Hideki Irabu a "fat toad" surely would have had something pointed to say about the hefty Sabathia. If Dave Winfield was dubbed Mr. May by the Boss because of his postseason struggles, what demeaning title would he have found for the slow-starting Tex—Mr. Spring Training?
That would have been nothing compared with the way Steinbrenner might have handled Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod should consider himself fortunate that his Yankees years have coincided with Steinbrenner's declining health and general mellowing. The combination of October failures, Madonna dalliances and steroid revelations no doubt would have caused Steinbrenner to give A-Rod a major media whipping. During an A-Rod slump in 2006, Steinbrenner told reporters he was "upset at ... the third baseman," then later backed off the statement. In his salad days, that would have been Steinbrenner just clearing his throat for the real blasts.
How could anyone miss a man who could be so harsh? Because there was something appealing about Steinbrenner's unreasonable expectations, about the way he overreacted like any fan who lived and died with his team. And let's be honest: There was also something satisfying in seeing wealthy ballplayers having to deal with the boss from hell, like any other working stiff.
Besides, it was hard to feel for the players when there was something slightly comical about Steinbrenner's bluster. And the Boss was clearly in on the joke. There was the beer commercial with Billy Martin in which he made light of the five times he hired and fired Martin as manager. He hosted Saturday Night Live, appearing in a sketch in which he played a softhearted store owner who couldn't bring himself to pink-slip Kevin Nealon or Phil Hartman no matter how badly they screwed up. In this age of reality TV, the Boss would undoubtedly have been an even bigger star. Steinbrenner, after all, was shouting "You're fired!" at famous people back when Donald Trump was just some guy in the real estate business.
Good luck finding that sort of charisma among current baseball owners. In fact, good luck even naming many of them. The sport's executive suites are fresh out of the kind of entertainingly egotistical characters that once were so common to the game. There is no Marge Schott treating her dog Schottzie better than her ballplayers, no Ted Turner tomahawk-chopping with Jane Fonda at Braves games. Don't expect much personality, for instance, from Atlanta's current owner, Liberty Media Corp. Conglomerates don't do the tomahawk chop.
Hank Steinbrenner comes closest to duplicating his father's bluntness. He has shown some signs of being a worthy heir—unloading on underperforming players during last year's swoon, for instance, and ridiculing Red Sox Nation. But he has been disappointingly silent at a time when one of the elder Steinbrenner's vintage rants, in which he let every staffer from the general manager to the equipment guy know that his job is on the line, might be just what the Yankees need. They clearly miss their old Boss. And they're not the only ones.
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How could anyone miss Steinbrenner? Because there was something appealing about his unreasonable expectations and how he overreacted like any fan.
ILLUSTRATION BY KAGAN MCLEOD