By Jason Keidel
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Bless those of you who endured the rain and watched in pain as the Yankees continue their journey from gamers to geldings. You deserve more than a free, overpriced Poland Spring and a cup of ice cream with a wooden spoon. You get three free tickets, which you’d understandably sell the moment you received them. Heck, I feel I deserve a medal just for watching the wretched contest until 2 a.m.
As Kate Smith’s recorded rendition of “God Bless America” swirled around an empty stadium, you had to wonder what would swirl through the mind of a former owner. Not just any owner, of course, but George M. Steinbrenner III. You call him King George or, more often and affectionately, “The Boss.”
After watching Boston batter, baffle, and beat the Yanks for three games – and seemingly every important game since 2004 –I recall a call into Mike Francesa’s show yesterday, just an anonymous voice from a young man yearning for yesterday. And I took a front row seat, next to him, on that journey back to better times.
You’ll point to 2009, when the Yanks lost their first eight to Boston and still won the World Series. But that squad was infused with fresh faces eager for a title, led by two franchise players (CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira) with twenty fingers and no rings. Do any of you really think this incarnation of the Bronx Bombers is landing anywhere near a pennant (much less a World Series title)? Steinbrenner would have his itchy finger perilously close to the trade trigger. Heads would indeed roll.
I miss the man. I miss the missives, the fumes billowing from his office, the overreaction to a spring loss where he scolds every Yankee from the trainer to the manager to the 12th pitcher in the bullpen, questioning everything short of their sexual orientation.
I miss him. He was the impossible dichotomy of being the best and worst of baseball, an amalgam of clashing characteristics he extracted from his boyhood heroes, from Douglas MacArthur to Otto Graham to his father.
I miss the man. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and turned it into platinum, much the way he took his $10 million investment in the 1973 Yankees and grew it into a $5 billion empire (when you include YES Network). More than his money was invested in that team, and we knew it. We knew, even when he acted the fool, that he was our fool whose mission was to remold the Yankees into winners, at any cost, any price, any sacrifice. He cared the way we cared. He was never a member of the martini-swilling, dot com or oil baron bunch who used sports as de facto target practice, a way to waste some time and a few billion on ballplayers. As much as a billionaire could be one of us, Steinbrenner was.
Depending on who you are and whom you love, Steinbrenner was either an ornery, obnoxious, surly, sarcastic, and caustic crusader whose goal in life was to remind you that he owned the Yankees and you didn’t, or he was…
…the philanthropic pillar of his gated community, who gave countless millions to charity without asking for one pat on his broad back, who plucked Doc and Darryl from baseballs scrap heap, saving them from themselves while getting them the extra rings they should have won with the Mets.
Perhaps George was all the above, more like us than we like to think, a microcosm of mankind who merely had a larger platform on which to perform. Or maybe he was just a jerk, a spoiled, overbearing blowhard who treated losing with an obdurate, adolescent immaturity, as though the rules (he was suspended twice from baseball) of the game and life applied to all but the King.
But we know if The Boss were around today, Joe Girardi would be in a conference room right now, trembling like George Costanza in the face and fury of Yankee ownership. No coddling after being swept by the contemptible Red Sox. This is a terminable (if not capital) offense.
If you’re 25, you didn’t see Steinbrenner at his best or his worst, which, oddly but honestly, were often the same. I assure you he’d be going Paul O’Neill on his team right now, taking the symbolic bat to every skull in the clubhouse. The team would listen and, perhaps, spark a streak of wins. They would play like each game were their last, at least.
Since the Bronx Zoo days the Bronx Bombers have been decidedly corporate, which works when you’re winning. But now it just sounds and feels more like a euphemism for “soft.” David Ortiz just defecated on Yankee Stadium, and the Yankees just watched, even embraced, his histrionics. Think the Boss would have taken that?
Even the World Series win in 2009 felt somewhat sterile, with Joe Buck unable to hand the hardware to a Blubbering Boss who was always quick to thank New York and New Yorkers for supporting his club. And it was one of a few times I never doubted his veracity. The Yankees were his life, and we assumed that’s just how owners rolled until he receded.
The dynasty ended around the time Steinbrenner collapsed at Graham’s funeral in 2003. He was never the same after that, nor were his beloved Bombers, who made the World Series that year, and didn’t return for six years, until his progeny (or “young lions” as he loved to call his kids) had a handle on the family business.
Steinbrenner neither threw a ball nor hit one, yet he meant more to his legions than any Yankee with a number on his back. He was, after all, The Boss. And I, for one, in this era or errant Yankees wrapped pinstripes and pulsing with indifference, miss him.
Boston has won their last six games at Yankee Stadium. That needn’t bother you. What bothers you is the alarming apathy with which they play: with no fire, no juice, no urgency, and no anger. The Yankees don’t play hard or smart, can’t run, pitch, or play the field.
Brett Gardner comes to mind as the emblem of the team’s lethargy, when he stood stunned on third base as a ball squirted back to the backstop while he did nothing and Derek Jeter, equally stunned, glared at Gardner with disgust. Gardner is about the dumbest baserunner in baseball, which is a problem considering his specialty is running the bases. The Yankees are festooned with such contradictions, like A.J. Burnett, who grinds pies in the pie holes of everyone except the one who deserves it: his own. Burnett’s next big game in a big game will he his first. George Steinbrenner abhors pretty players like Burnett who never sniff their potential.
Yes, when a team plays poorly it looks like they’re not trying. But the Yankees spent a decade trying and losing, but not trying to lose. It was called the 1980s. This squad just feels different. There’s a hovering apathy to the team that I can’t put on paper. You just must watch them to feel it.
Joba Chamberlain is out until 2013 after Tommy John. His surgery clearly isn’t cosmetic, nor is his loss. Combine Joba’s injury with the whiff on Cliff Lee, Dandy Andy’s retirement, and Phil Hughes losing a good 6 mph off his fastball, the Yankees’ pitching is thinner than Edwar Ramirez.
It’s all part of a narrative, and not a pleasant one. Unless the Yankees land a legion of golden arms before July 31, fall will come too early for a team with rights to and rites of autumn. And the worst part is that they don’t care, and the one man who can fix it has fallen, taking our baseball soul with him.
Perhaps Bernie Williams, who roamed the most sacred spot in sports when the greatest team in sports was essential, can strum a song in centerfield. It should be a Simon and Garfunkel tune, wondering…Where have you gone, Boss?
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com