Column: Divisive “Boss” deserves respect

By Andrew J. Cassavell

Love him — many did.

Hate him — probably even more did.

Respect him — if you don’t, shame on you.

George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees from 1973 until Tuesday, when he died of a heart attack at the age of 80, was one of the most influential figures in the history of baseball.

He was also one of the most interesting people in the history of sports, heck, maybe even the world.

This is a man brilliant enough to buy a franchise for $8.8 million and turn it into a billion-dollar entity by the middle of the 2000s.

A man crazy enough to fire and re-hire manager Billy Martin five times.

A man legendary enough, he became an iconic figure on Seinfeld, even though he was only ever portrayed by the back of an actor’s head.

A man who wanted to win titles so badly, he is single-handedly responsible for the birth of high-priced free agency. That’s right, thank Steinbrenner, who once said, “Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing,” for the $25 million contract Cliff Lee will sign this offseason.

He wanted to win so badly, he publicly apologized for his team’s performance after it dropped the 1981 World Series in six games. So badly, he fired the manager who resurrected the Yankees to their first playoff appearance after a 14-year drought, during the ensuing offseason.

The man he hired to replace Buck Showalter: Joe Torre. Yup, that turned out all right.

If you think Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert was angry when he wrote his letter to Cavs fans after LeBron James’ departure, Steinbrenner would have made Gilbert look tame. After all, it was Steinbrenner who claimed to have gotten in an elevator fight with two Dodger fans after a Game 3 loss in 1981.

Of course, in Gilbert’s situation, Steinbrenner would have been able to throw infinite money at James.

He did that for four decades.

In his early years it was Catfish, Reggie and Winfield, and in the years leading to his death, he drove fans of 29 other teams crazy by inking names like A-Rod, Giambi, Mussina, Matsui and Sheffield to lucrative contracts.

The incessant desire to win-by-cash is ultimately what made Steinbrenner so scrutinized and so hated.

Was it bad for the game? That’s a debate for another column. But Steinbrenner was allowed to win by spending, and that’s what he did.

Sure, he had the most money, but he also cared more. Pirates fans, tell me with a straight face you’d rather have the Nuttings as your owners than a man who spent in order to win seven World Series and 11 pennants.

The lasting memories of Steinbrenner will hopefully be the ones of him arguing with Martin or calling out Dave Winfield for being “Mr. May.” They epitomize his brash desire to win.

I grew up watching 130 Yankee games a year, and it was rare that I agreed with the Boss. He called out Torre, a man who earned him four titles, far too often, and he put unhealthy pressure on general manager Brian Cashman to raid the farm system to overpay for bigger names.

But, I am a fan of the New Jersey Nets (yes, we exist), and I have watched, first-hand, a franchise demolished by majority owners who cared about earning a buck more than a title.

That was never the case with George, and, as a fan, isn’t that all you can ask for?

Remember in Anchorman, when Vince Vaughn’s character, Wes Mantooth, tells Ron Burgundy, “With every inch of me, I pure straight hate you. But damnit, I respect you.”

The same has to apply for critics of Steinbrenner.

Rest in peace, George. The Yankees are champions, and I’m sure you wouldn’t have wanted to die any other way.

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