George Steinbrenner died today, and even though I am a Mets fan, I actually found Steinbrenner fascinating (and a major part of New York culture). Yes, this is a man who created the free agency issues of today (so if you're a Pirates fan...you hate him), who tried to convince the city that a new Yankees ballpark at Ground Zero would be best of the city, and who didn't like Dave Winfield so much that he hired a guy to smear him...and got banned from baseball for life (or three years), but he did do good things as well.
He created a way of life for the New York Yankees. They had to dress well and look professional. This meant no long hair or beards. He brought them back from the brink of nothingness after they had been so great.
Yes, he was a tough son-of-a-gun, but he also wanted to win...and to win, you have to be tough.
No one really remembers, however, that Steinbrenner had a sense of humor and pretty good heart.
For example, he kept bringing Billy Martin back. Yes, he fired him, but he kept him on the payroll and kept bringing him back. And you could tell they had somewhat of a fondness for each other as was evident from this commercial:
And this extended to other players as well. If you listen to the different pundits out there, you'll hear about how Steinbrenner kept fired staff members on payroll. You'll hear how he helped out kids in Tampa who needed help going to school or needed lights for their baseball fields. This leads to my George Steinbrenner story. Mind you, much of this was relayed to me by my parents.
In the summer of 1986 (the year the New York Mets won the World Series), my parents had setup a house in a small town in Northwestern Connecticut. The town sold raffle tickets to certain items to raise money (sort of like how many Minnesota towns sell pull-tabs to pay for things like Whiz Bang or Duk Duk Days). I, being a charming and precocious child, was drafted to sell said tickets at a carnival held near the Congregational Church. With a sandwich board and a reel of tickets, I set out to charm as many of the people as I could. There was also a prize for the top seller ( I don't remember what it was, and I didn't win as I didn't have a bajillion family members to sell my tickets to like the other kids).
I was focused, and I wanted to win. I spied a group of older men who all looked to have money and figured I could get them to buy from me...but I wasn't sure who they were. I found my mother and asked her to tell me quickly. "That balding man," she told me, "is Mayor Ed Koch. I'm not sure who's with him."
So, I marched up to Mayor Ed Koch in the circle of these men and said, "You are Mayor Ed Koch, and I am Marcus Leab, and YOU are going to buy some raffle tickets from me." The Mayor of New York looked amused. Here was a kid telling the mayor of the greatest city on Earth what to do. And to his credit, Mayor Koch bought ten dollars worth of raffle tickets off of me. Once our transaction was completed, I started working on the rest of the men in his circle. Almost everyone said no, but I started talking to they guy closest to me.
"Please," I said, "do it for this town. There's so much history here...."
"Sorry, kid, but that's a nice try," he responded.
"But did you see Mayor Koch? He bought some."
This would continue for another minute before Mayor Koch would turn to the man and say:
"Come on, George. Help the kid out. Maybe he's a Yankees fan."
At that, George Steinbrenner turned to me and said, "Kid, what's your name?"
"Marcus," I said.
"Well, Marcus, you're quite good at this," he said. "If you stay out of trouble, you might have a future as a salesman. I'll match the Mayor's purchase and take ten."
I started to pull the tickets off the reel for him. Then he said, "I'll tell you what. Give me ten more than the mayor." Then he smiled.
As he and the Mayor walked off, Mayor Koch said, "See George...I told you you had a heart."
I sold George Steinbrenner those twenty tickets. He never complained, and he was never rude to me (unlike Dick Ebersol, who told me not only to go away, but called me a parasite...but that's another story). He didn't have to buy those tickets, but he did because he wanted to help a kid out.
Of course, as good of a guy as he was, he was shrewd. Steinbrenner is probably up in Heaven now trying to replace God. Then he'll install Thurmon Munson as head angel, force Jesus to get a haircut ("No long-haired hippies on my team," he'll say), and then trade Billy Martin to Hell for Adolph Hitler and a soul to be named later. When asked why Hitler, Steinbrenner will say, "Because I needed a leader...regardless of his past."