by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

It takes more than being rich, arrogant and egotistical to turn off New York City. You have to be a loser as well. Only when George Steinbrenner sank to this sin did the Big Apple really turn to the hangmen and say: “Get him!”

This, despite the fact that for many years, Steinbrenner was almost a necessary evil in his town. Having lived there, I can tell you, most New York sports fans need someone to hate, they almost enjoy it. Goes with the territory, like Mace.

Besides, George was perfect for the job. He was a ruthless, crude, self-centered liar, which means he reminded many New Yorkers of someone they knew, usually a neighbor.

He wasn’t just bad, he was New York bad. He inflated the free-agent market to ridiculous proportion, bidding for guys like Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield as if they were jewels on the block at Sotheby’s. And while each may have cost him an unnecessary million here or there, he didn’t flinch, no more than a New Yorker flinches when he pays $1,900 a month for a room the size of a bookcase.

And, of course, like most New Yorkers, Steinbrenner was always in a mad rush. Things could never come soon enough. My favorite story is the time he phoned the apartment of his public relations director, whose roommate answered the phone.

“Where’s my PR director?” Steinbrenner barked.

“He’s not here,”‘ said the roommate.

“Go find him, or you’re fired.”

The roommate laughed. “Fired? I don’t even work for you.”

“Then I’ll buy the company you work for,” Steinbrenner said, “and then I’ll fire you.”

Perfect, right? He’s Donald Trump. He wasn’t always this unpopular So it is no surprise that Steinbrenner generated such a healthy hatred in all five boroughs. Or that the headlines in two Big Apple tabloids Tuesday — the day after commissioner Fay Vincent forced him to resign as Yankees general partner because of his $40,000 payment to known gambler Howard Spira — read, with apparent glee: “YOU’RE OUT!”

George wasn’t always this unpopular. Back in the ’70s, when he was buying every player in sight and building a team of free-swinging, hard-pitching egomaniacs, the fans in New York were all behind him. They enjoyed the way he made the other baseball owners look like grandmothers trying to unzip their change purses. It reminded them that New York was the biggest and brashest city in the world, even if you can’t use a bathroom there without buying a meal. New Yorkers even nicknamed Steinbrenner “the Boss,” a tag usually reserved for Mafia kings and Bruce Springsteen.

Back then, nobody seemed too upset that Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to conspiring to make illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s campaign fund, a felony, or that he was suspended by commissioner Bowie Kuhn following the plea.

That’s because the Yankees were winning. In New York, there is a difference between being self-centered, bigmouthed and winning, versus self-centered, bigmouthed and losing. It is the difference between applause and a bag of manure. It is no coincidence that the day Yankee Stadium cheered the emasculation of George, his team had the worst record in baseball. For many New York fans, it wasn’t the day baseball stopped a bad man, it was the day to start talking about “how soon to the next pennant race?” Will Hank carry the torch? Yes, with his payment to Spira and the lies that

followed, Steinbrenner went from contemptible to flat-out stupid. It was his downfall. In his testimony before Vincent, he squirmed like a cheap hood tied to a chair in “Dick Tracy.” But, to be honest, before this Spira nonsense, George basically did things that a lot of New Yorkers would do if they had money — particularly those who wear baseball caps to bed and spend their last dime trying to get through to a sports talk show.

These people don’t like the way a guy plays, they scream, “Trade him!” The Boss did that. They get tired of a manager, they say, “Fire him!” The Boss did that. They see a good player on another team, they say, “I wish we could buy him.”

The Boss did that.

And now, the Boss is gone, and they are cheering in the Big Apple. But wait and see what happens if his spot is filled by some dull, plodding starched-shirt type. They may ask for an appeal.

Personally, I am worried about New Yorkers. First they lost Leona Helmsley. Then Trump blows his money. Ed Koch is gone. Now Steinbrenner. Soon, they may be walking the streets with such a surplus of hatred, they could explode. Boom! Nothing left but a subway token.

Of course, there may be a way around this. Steinbrenner’s son, Hank, is one of the candidates to take over his father’s position. And while Vincent promises Steinbrenner will not be allowed to operate the Yankees through his child, most New Yorkers figure deep down he’ll find a way.

You know what? If the kid starts winning, no one will care. They’ll make him a saint. And if he loses, well, he’s just his father’s son. Lots of folks in New York are talking about justice — and they don’t even know who Howie Spira is. They mean justice that the Yanks can get back on top. Winning, after all, has always been the real core of the Big Apple.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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