Like a lot of baseball fans from the 80s - and like a lot of baseball fans from before - I grew up hating George Steinbrenner. It was one of few consensus opinions, like being anti-pollution, or pro-not-swinging-babies-around-like-a-Terrible-Towel. Opinions of Tony Gwynn would be challenged. Opinions of Greg Maddux would be challenged. Opinions of George Steinbrenner would not be challenged. Steinbrenner was hated by fans of every other team in baseball, and on occasion by half the fans of his own. In dreams, he'd be hoofed.
Mind you, I never really knew why I hated George Steinbrenner at the time. I suspect it had a lot to do with the fact that the Yankees were really good, and the Yankees were expensive, and Steinbrenner seemed from afar to have an abrasive, unpleasant personality. I suppose these struck me as fine reasons to hate. By the late 90s, the Yankees were amazing. I couldn't stand them, and there was Steinbrenner, up at the top, pulling all the strings. If you hate the puppet, you hate the puppetmaster. The former without the latter is like hating congestion without hating the cold.
Even though he hadn't been around and involved for a while, the name "George Steinbrenner" still resonated with me through recent years. Of the core of those Yankees teams that drove me so crazy, he was easily the most hateable figure. His name was inextricably tied to a series of memories - bad memories - memories I'll never forget. As with a babysitter or a piano teacher, George Steinbrenner's was simply a name that in some way played a part in my development as a person, and the part he played was infuriating.
And now he's passed away. It's funny - whenever anything like this happens in the world of sports, journalists and commentators will remark that it puts everything in perspective. It rarely does. This one did.
To be sure, there are a lot of perfectly legitimate reasons for people to hate George Steinbrenner. He was an ultra-competitive person, and he did a lot of shady things - shady things during my lifetime, shady things before I was born, and shady things that may not have ever been revealed. George Steinbrenner was not, publicly, an easy man to love.
But no matter your opinion of Steinbrenner as a person, it's important to understand what he was as an owner. And as an owner, Steinbrenner was everything any fan could ever want an owner to be.
He might've even been too much. These days in baseball, all too often we're reminded that baseball is a business. We hear talk of payroll shedding. We deal with people like Jeffrey Loria. As a Mariners fan, I'm certainly familiar with concerns that a team's owner might be more focused on making money than fielding a competitive ballclub. Owners, of course, are focused on making money, and baseball is a business more than it's anything else, but this isn't something any fan ever wants to hear. A fan doesn't get involved because of the business side of things. A fan gets involved because he likes watching the games and wants his team to win. A fan wants an owner to share his competitive will.
That's George Steinbrenner. Make no mistake - Steinbrenner spent a lot of time on the business end of things. Steinbrenner built the Yankees into an empire, and then an Evil Empire, turning a franchise he bought for pocket change into the envy of owners the world around. But if there was one thing Steinbrenner cared about more than money, it was winning. I don't know if this was actually true on a personal level, but that was the impression he gave. George Steinbrenner never, ever, ever wanted the Yankees to lose.
It's reflected in his attitude, his payrolls, his interventions and his relentless pursuit of free agents. George Steinbrenner was a very rich, very emotional fan in a very powerful position. Ball Madden calls him "the last lion of baseball," and it's a very suitable description - he was a proud and commanding man always on the hunt, and willing to do whatever it took to get his way. There were no questions over whether or not George Steinbrenner cared. George Steinbrenner cared. George Steinbrenner might've cared more than Paul O'Neill cared, or more than Derek Jeter cares.
Fans always want their teams to be the best teams they can be. They never want to hear about limitations or reasons their team can't add a good player. George Steinbrenner removed those limitations. Or, if nothing else, he lifted them to unthinkable heights. And for that reason, Yankees fans got to live the dream. They say Yankees fans act spoiled and entitled, but who can blame them? George Steinbrenner was their grandpa, and for a while it seemed like every day was Christmas. Every so often the gift would be a stinker, but no one ever gets tired of unwrapping presents.
Ken Rosenthal says, in his piece this morning, that "there won't be another owner like The Boss." He's right on, for a number of reasons, but foremost among them is that Steinbrenner may have been baseball's last great fan executive. There are other owners who care, and there are other owners with a passion, but not one of them will ever work so tirelessly to fulfill it.