The first column I wrote was about George Steinbrenner, the Yankee owner and baseball icon who died Tuesday of a heart attack. It was 1985, and I was living in Brooklyn. Steinbrenner had just fired Yogi Berra as Yankee skipper after the team had sputtered in April, losing 10 of its first 16 games. I was not long out of college and working in advertising, and I sent roughly 600 vitriolic words to The New York Post. The sports editor liked it, but they had more than enough sportswriters to explain why Steinbrenner was Satan. They didn’t need me.
A decade later, the TV sitcom “Seinfeld” would lampoon Steinbrenner as a likeable buffoon in one of my favorite ongoing sub-plots. The Yankees owner was character George Costanza’s boss (viewers would never see the fictional Steinbrenner’s face, but the voice would be played by the show’s co-creator, Larry David). George was the assistant to the traveling secretary, one of the great bureaucratic titles of all time. “Big Stein,” as the character called himself, would torment Costanza by insisting his employee bring him calzones everyday for lunch, presuming the Pat Benatar song “Heartbreaker” was actually “Brubaker,” or (in the end) trading him from the Yankees to Tyson Chicken.
My wife grew up in Manhattan, but she also grew up in a family of women who were oblivious to baseball. Consequently, while I see George Steinbrenner as the guy who fired managers with the same frequency some guys get haircuts (and, yes, the guy who also brought seven world championships to the Bronx and changed the business of baseball), she sees him as … “Big Stein.”
In some ways, my wife’s and my differing views of Steinbrenner are reflected in all baseball fans, especially lately. Moreover, Steinbrenner himself mellowed in the last few years, even before he turned over control of the team to his sons. The result is that people tend to remember him a little more fondly than they might have had he gotten out of baseball a decade ago — before bringing in Joe Torre as manager. (Here is a stat for the record books: Steinbrenner changed managers 20 times in his first 23 seasons as owner.) He might be remembered for making illegal campaign contributions to President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign or paying a gambler to try to find reputation-killing dirt on slugger Dave Winfield. Both acts earned him suspensions from baseball.
But here is the thing about George Steinbrenner: Whether he was Satan or “Big Stein,” he made the House that Ruth Built a very special place — sometimes even a magical place.
To wit: One spring Saturday in 1982 when my wife and I were in college, my father took the two of us to Yankee Stadium because she had never been to a baseball game. The Twins were in town, and my wife discovered pretty quickly that baseball was not her cup of tea. But she was a good sport and decided to make the best of the afternoon by following one player. She chose Ray Smith, the Twins catcher that day, because she thought he was cute when she was watching batting practice and because he had to spend the day wearing all that heavy gear (mask, shin guards, chest protector), while the other players looked so comfortable in only their uniforms and caps.
In the fifth inning, Smith came to bat for the second time, and my wife was excited, cheering him on. I was staring down at the scorecard because I am a geek who keeps score at ballgames. Suddenly everyone around us was gasping and I looked up. At exactly that moment, a foul ball fell from the sky and bounced off the armrest of her seat and then soared high into the seats behind us. Another fan got the souvenir, but to this day my wife knows it was meant for her.
Now, obviously Steinbrenner didn’t script that foul ball. He wielded a lot of power (and not always benignly), but not even he could have masterminded that little trick. But in all of the dozens of days and nights I spent at Shea Stadium, home of my boyhood Mets, never once did a foul ball land anywhere near me. But at the House of “Big Stein?” You just never knew what might happen.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on July 18, 2010.)