August 19, 2007
The Way We Live Now
By JAMES TRAUB
I come to bury George Steinbrenner, not to praise him. The all-conquering owner of the New York Yankees is not actually dead, of course, though he has withdrawn from public view; in a recent news account, a baseball executive described the Yankee owner as “inconsistently lucid.” But the era of the man who has in many ways personified baseballto the detriment of a game that many Americans, despite everything, still cherish — has ended. Historians will note that the terminal moment arrived July 31, when the Yankees, though trailing the first-place Boston Red Sox by eight games, allowed the league’s trading deadline to pass without dealing away any of their minor-league prospects in exchange for an established star who might help them win right now.
The Steinbrenner Yankees have always been prepared to mortgage the future for the present—and then to buy a new future the following year. The owner, a former football coach, has brought a devouring impatience to a sport that teaches a rueful regard for time and chance. Yankee fans can toll off the names of those desperate, and occasionally wise, midseason acquisitions of years past: George Scott, the shambling man-mountain first baseman; Omar Moreno; Cecil Fielder; David Justice; Glenallen Hill; Jeff Weaver; and, last season, Bobby Abreu, the team’s current right fielder. The Yankees deaccessioned some of their most gifted young players in exchange (as well as a raft of has-beens).
Steinbrenner’s philosophy has always been: I pay you top dollar; you produce. But this grim form of accountability turns out to be not only joyless but also self-defeating, because athletes, like the rest of us, need to reach for something beyond greed and fear. You need look for proof no further than the great Yankees teams of the late 1990s, built on a core of players, including the current heroes Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, who spent their entire careers with the club. That was a team, not just an assemblage of talent. And it was largely put together while Steinbrenner was banished from the league for a year.
In his Ahab-like quest for victory and redemption, Steinbrenner stands apart even from the other self-indulgent tycoons who control Major League Baseball. Only the Yankees’ owner is the protagonist of a TV miniseries (“The Bronx Is Burning,” about the insanely fractious team of 1977). Only Steinbrenner’s Yankees have been described by a rival, Larry Lucchino of the Boston Red Sox, as “the Evil Empire.” The Yankee panjandrum is one of America’s great cartoon villains — Donald Trump without the self-love and sex appeal, Ted Turner without the bleeding heart, Rupert Murdoch without the global vision.
And a cartoon villain, unlike the real thing, is a source of delight. I suspect that Steinbrenner will prove irreplaceable for those millions of fans who have relished hating him and his vaunted team for the last 34 years. For them, he has offered endless entertainment as well as cheap moral satisfaction, a kind of unearned sense of superiority. Think of how conservatives love to hate Teddy Kennedy.
But for Yankee fans, the ledger is much more complicated. Steinbrenner raised the Yankees from the pitiful state in which he found them in 1973; under his tenure, the team has won 6 World Series and 10 league championships. And from the point of view of the true fan, it is quite literally impossible to take the fun out of winning. You can, however, take the fun out of not winning. Since 2001, Steinbrenner has regularly apologized to the people of New York for not winning the World Series, as if we sought or deserved such an apology. (How would he explain the besotted diehards of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who wept bitter tears with each season’s disappointment and then rallied round the cry, “Wait till next year!”?)
He has traded away true-blue Yankees who have gone on to shine elsewhere for the likes of Jason Giambi, a steroid-jacked slugger with a gargantuan contract and swiftly declining numbers. And all the while he has publicly twisted the thumbscrews on his general manager, Brian Cashman, and beloved manager, Joe Torre. Steinbrenner has, in short, made baseball feel like yet another of life’s remorseless struggles, like politics or Wall Street or the war on terror.
Michael Novak, the Catholic philosopher and sometime sports metaphysician, has written, perhaps only half in jest, that sports occupy “the Kingdom of Ends” — things done for their own sake — and thus constitute something finer and more lasting than work and history, which operate in the realm of means, of endless and restless seeking. And of all sports, baseball seems richest in vivid particulars. “There are oceans of satisfaction, seas of restored appetite, in as humble a thing as a baseball season,” as the sportswriter Thomas Boswell has written. And yes, it’s true that the ludicrous sums paid to players and the scandal over steroid use, which turned Barry Bonds’s quest to erase the career home-run record into a neuralgic event, have made it hard to speak of baseball’s “sanctity” without irony. And yet something remains.
Baseball, I think, still holds a precious enough place in our souls that it can be desecrated — just as, say, a great newspaper can be. That’s why Murdoch can buy all the satellite distribution systems he wants, but we quake when he snaps his fingers at The Wall Street Journal. And that’s why we wish baseball, despite everything, to abide in the Kingdom of Ends. We want the sport, like other endeavors we care deeply about, to be worthy of our love. Is that too much to ask?