My first George Steinbrenner memory is when he bought the New York Yankees.
Steinbrenner struck me as a young and brash owner who would be more “hands-on” than the CBS group that ran them into the ground.
I just did not realize how much hands-on he would be. The Billy Martin hiring in 1976 and the turbulence of that 1977 season with Reggie, Munson, Martin and Stenbrenner feuding through the press up until the Yankees had won their first championship since 1962.
They repeated in 1978, beating the Dodgers again. But the managerial merry-go-round had just begun. Martin in, Martin out, Martin in, Martin out.
Lemon, Howser, Berra Green, Showalter, etc. It just never stopped.
Free agents came and good prospects were traded away.
There is no doubt that the same drive that Steinbrenner instilled in the club in the good years (1977-1978) also fueled the dark period of 1979-1994.
People always gave me a hard time because I loved the Yankees. They said I loved the Yankees simply because they were the best team. I was a front-runner, they said. But I would tell them that my love of the Yankees began with Mickey Mantle.
I also rooted for them from 1963 to 1976, despite the fact they did not win a championship. I also rooted for them from 1979 through 1995 even though they did not win a championship. So I would tell them: How could be a front-runner when I was a Yankee fan through the two longest championship droughts in their history?
That is the Steinbrenner legacy too. Not just the championships he won and the tradition he helped restore to the Yankees. He also was part of those long droughts, too. I seethed with anger when the Yankees traded away Doug Drabek for Rick Rhoden. I felt the same way when Jose Rijo was dealt to Oakland for Tim Belcher.
Fans are still scratching their heads over the Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps trade.
That was largely the reason why the Yankees were so bad from 1982 to 1994. But the real revelation of the Steinbrenner era came in 1995. The team suddenly was allowing minor league stars like Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada to develop and grow within the organization.
For some reason those players were not traded as the their predecessors were — usually for aging veterans with little left in the tank. The Yankees also realized that free-agent pitchers like Jimmy Key, David Cone, David Wells and Roger Clemens could help.
Though the New York media ripped him before he ever managed a game, Joe Torre was hired the manager of this new core of young and talented players. A deal was struck to send Roberto Kelly to the Reds for Paul O’Neill and the core had their fiery leader.
From 1996 until the present day, the Yankees have won the American East in every season except 2008. The Yankees have remained competitive and made the playoffs in every year except 2008.
They won four championships in five seasons from 1996 through 2000. Torre was the toast of New York back then.
But when the team started losing playoff series to the Angels and Indians and the World Series to the Marlins and Diamondbacks the fans who never knew the long years of drought turned on him. Eventually the front office did, too.
Though I still think letting Torre go was a mistake, I understand the reason why it had to happen. Now Joe Girardi has the reins and he has won No. 27. The team has a new collection of talented stars like Teixeira and Sabathia and young stars like Cano.
But there also remains Jeter and Rivera and Posada and Pettitte. The bridge from the past to the future. Young stars like Phil Hughes and Brett Gardner joined the team from the minor-league system. Will they be the core of the next great team 10 years from now?
Then there is the new stadium and its grandeur and grace borrowed from the Old Lady across the street. While Ruth gives way to Jeter and Ford gives way to Pettitte, there is George Steinbrenner.
For good or for bad, the Yankees grew from the moment Steinbrenner bought them to now. The fan base, the TV network, the cache’ of the Yankee brand is all due to him. His vision is now complete and his legacy has passed on to sons Hal and Hank.
So the Steinbrenner family is expected now to carry on that tradition. That same drive that forced Steinbrenner to take the reins in 1973 will live on with every decision they make.
The one time I was able to see George in person came at an exhibition game in West Palm Beach in 1980. He was walking from his box out of the stadium and fans were pouring towards him begging for autographs. Smiling broadly, Steinbrenner basked in all the adoration proudly.
Knowing that he takes his rest today with 27 banners for the Yankees and seven to his credit, he knows that his team is in great hands. I am just hoping that George does not get too riled in heaven and he tries to fire Moses.
I would think he would have a problem selling that one to the media in heaven.
We love you, George. Thank you for giving us our Yankees back!