Friday, November 05, 2010

BOOKS: Steinbrenner - The Last Lion of Baseball by Bill Madden

It took George Steinbrenner's death this summer to prompt me to finally reach down a ways into the reading pile and pull out Bill Madden's biography of the late New York Yankees owner. Getting through the rather longish Steinbrenner - The Last Lion of Baseball was rewarding, yet puzzling.

I'm not sure if Madden actually uses the term bi-polar anywhere in the book. And I'm not anxious to go back over the pages looking to see if he did, once, by accident. Yet how can anybody come away from reading this book and NOT assume Steinbrenner was bi-polar. Here was a man capable of great cruelty to the men he hired to be part of his Yankees organization. The count on men who eventually decided the exorbitant salaries Steinbrenner paid wasn't enough to continue taking flak from the explosive multi-millionaire, was too high to count.

Yet, at the same time, his untold tales of charity were just as legion. He understood the value of a hundred bucks to a man where that much meant a roof over his family's head for another month. It's one thing to make a splashy donation of many, many thousands of dollars to an organization where that might translate into cents on the dollar at the street level. But Steinbrenner really knew how small and medium sums of money could,--would-- make a difference. He was generous, to a fault, and more than willing to do it without a PR hack proclaiming it loud and clear.

After reading the book, I found myself absolutely sure I would have liked to have known him. And just as absolutely sure I would never have worked for him. Not for any money for even the briefest of times. He was a micro-manager who accepted nothing less than total success all the time. Which is unreasonable. Which is how he ended up mixed up with such a mixture of well-meaning good guys and meatheads.

If you play word association games with Steinbrenner's name, two names come up quickly. Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin. Martin got to the big city first, on the heels of being fired after successful seasons by THREE different teams. The combative and allegedly alcoholic Martin had had personality conflicts aplenty. But he was an ex-Yankee and the antithesis of Bill Virdon, a calm career baseball man, who wasn't fiery (read winning) enough for Steinbrenner at that moment in time. So, Martin started his first tour with the Yankees. Of such small starts do tornados grow to destructive dimensions.

The additive of Jackson to the Yankee's volatile mix the winter after Martin took over mid-season, proved too combustible. While much is made of the nationally-televised Martin-Jackson fight in the dugout, the fact is, it was just a rehash of an earlier clash from Spring Training, also televised, this one by ABC. That was the ABC of Howard Cosell at the time. Which meant a meaningless pre-season game couldn't be quietly forgotten. And thus started the War that never turned Cold between Martin and Jackson. And Steinbrenner was certainly no innocent bystander. If anything, he seemed to spur things on, getting some sort of kick out the energy that crackled around the Yankees all the time.

Yet, Steinbrenner almost always backed Jackson against Martin, while taking any other side against Jackson due to his big ticket. He never did 'fire' Jackson, but gassed Battlin' Billy a total of five times. And seemed morose after each time. He fired other people multiple times. And there were occasions he forgot he fired people, expecting them into work the next day ... even if it was a holiday. Had not Martin died in a Christmas Day truck crash, he would most certainly have continued his on-off managerial record. He was already being set up for a sixth time, dependent on Bucky Dent's start as manager in 1990, at the time of his death. If ever there was a "can't live with 'im, can't live without 'im" relationship, it was Martin and Steinbrenner.

It's a testament of sorts that so many people went BACK to Steinbrenner after getting fired. The reason was that in the off-season, the big-hearted Steinbrenner could sell just about anybody on the joys and privileges of helping the New York Yankees be the best team in baseball. And baseball is a game of egos as much as anything else. Many thought they could change/handle Steinbrenner, that the second time around would be different because they were ready/experienced with the stress that was coming. Most were wrong.

But, as the old saying goes, you can't make diamonds without pressure. Steinbrenner revived a moribund franchise when he stick-handled his way through the purchase of the team from CBS. Then he poured hard-earned money from his shipping business into making the Yankees one of the world's biggest sports brands. And a winner again ... in the Yankee tradition and all.

Given his larger-than-live personna, many of us could be forgiven for thinking he'd outlast us all. Watching a university play in Chapel Hill NC in which his grand-daughter Haley was part of, Steinbrenner had to be taken to hospital due to chest pains and breathing problems. Whatever medical problems that evidenced themselves that day in lat 2006, it was the start of the slow decline and disappearance from public view of Madden's so-called Last Lion of Baseball. Less than four years later he was dead.

I'm a Blue Jay fan (and yes, I got a kick out of how mad Steinbrenner was to lose Pat Gillick and Elliot Wahle to the local heroes of the diamond), so a Yankees book isn't something I felt I NEEDED to read. But I did, and it was a worthwhile task.

But come on folks, bi-polar or what?!?

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