By Tony Mangia
THE STEINBRENNER YEARS: A VIRTUAL SOUNDTRACK FOR NEW YORKERS
If the death of Yankee's announcer, Bob Sheppard, was the demise of the Yankees' voice; the passing of Yankee owner, George Steinbrenner, was the elegy of the sports and social soundtrack of New York for the past 38 years. As a kid growing up in New York and its confines, I can relate parts of my life to sound bites of the Yankees during the Steinbrenner years. The death of The Boss wasn't as much of a shock---he was sick for years---as much as a reminder of how much of my life revolved around the New York Yankees.
I received two calls from childhood friends in Tampa and New Jersey today. "Steinbrenner died" were the first words from both. It was like they were somberly breaking the news of the death of a close relative or another comrade. "Remember that game when...," each continued with a different story. I remembered every moment.
FROM EMPTY SEATS TO FULL POCKETS
Being a Yankee fan in '70s New York meant mean streets, Horace Clark at second base, tons of empty seats at the Stadium, and a prized Roy White Edition bat from Bat Day. The Mets were still living off of their "miracle" years and were the toast of the town. All that changed when that Cleveland interloper, Steinbrenner took over. The arrival was as smooth as burlap and he cleaned shop with the same gruffness.
First came Catfish Hunter and then the Reggie Jackson. The big mouth who was pompous enough to diss our blue-collar hero, Thurman Munson. There were the battles between The Boss and dirt-kicking manager Billy Martin and the consequential hirings and firings. But with all that, there were the victories.
I remember listening to inimitable and nasally Phil Rizzuto. His "holy cow!" after a Ron Guidry strikeout or a Craig Nettles line-drive stab. Listening to the action on a sunny Jersey beach while Goose Gossage struck out three Red Sox players in row during an August pennant drive still resonates. WPIX broadcasts, with the Scooter, Bill White and Frank Messer didn't seem to last until past midnight. Maybe they did, but who cared. It was all a young Yankee fan could ask for.
It wasn't all winning and glory for the Yankees. The '80s provided nothing except the brilliance of Don Mattingly and series of suspensions for Steinbrenner, the feud with Yogi, a scandal that involved Dave Winfield and finally banishment---then re-instatement like only The Boss could have done--- from Major League Baseball by Commissioner Fay Vincent. The Yankee owner became a pariah, even among many of the Yankee faithful.
Then came the Jeter years. The Boss seemed to mellow---maybe it was the Joe Torre effect---and winning in the Bronx was as regular as the 5 train. The new, gentler Steinbrenner took wayward souls like Steve Howe, Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden---who threw one of the most improbable no-hitters---and gave them second (and third) chances. Four championships in five years made the New York Yankees the longest-running class act in all of sports.
Then it seemed like The Boss wasn't around. He was occasionally spotted perched in the owner's box. There was the horrible sounds of Red Sox cheers in 2004. A strain so vile, it reverberated in Yankee fan's heads until last year's championship. Slowly, the feebler version (dare I say that) of the boss from hell quietly handed the reins over to his sons, Hank and Hal.
If Bob Sheppard was the opposite of the loud-mouthed, lights flashing stadium announcers of today, then George (New Yorkers can call him that) was antithesis of the current garden-variety " Look at Me" sports team owners. George did everything to win. Emphasis on win!
Now, New York City looks like a friendly mall, Yankee Stadium seats are full---and $2500---All-Star, Robinson Cano turns the double play at second, and I think the bats on Bat Day are the size of pencils. The more things change...the more they...change.
STEINBRENNER CHANGED SPORTS FOREVER
Love or hate the Yankees and/or Steinbrenner; he was one of a kind. He introduced sports to the high-priced free-agent and the option of owning your own network. Opposing teams, owners, and MLB brass lambasted him. Heck, even pinstripe fans had love affairs, then threatened to break his kneecaps or just tolerated the bluster and arrogance of the man. If you were lucky enough to be a Yankee fan for the past thirty years, you've enjoyed one of the great New York stories.
I hope Derek Jeter is given a moment during tonight's All-Star Game to express the feelings of Yankee fans like only the humble shortstop can, "Thanks and Rest in Peace, Mister Steinbrenner."