The first Old-Timer's Day I ever went to, Roger Maris, Elston Howard, Mickey Mantle were all alive and present. Once The Mick died, I realized that there would come a day when DiMaggio wouldn't be around anymore...and that one day Phil Rizzuto would be taking the George Washington Bridge to the eternal 7th inning. We all followed what was going on with Bobby Murcer and prayed for the best. I saw that Eddie Layton and Bob Sheppard were getting up there and I knew I should treasure them both.
Then Joe D got sick and went soon after that. Phil retired and he left us as well. Bobby fought the best he could but lost the battle in the end. Eddie Layton retired and then he too was gone. Bob got sick and never returned. Throughout all this I'd had George in the back of my head but kept it buried there. When Bob Sheppard died at the age of 99 this past weekend I started to think about George again. When I heard on the news yesterday morning that he'd had a heart attack I knew it didn't sound good.
George Steinbrenner was such a larger than life character you almost expected him to transcend things like illness and mortality. I'd always had this image in my head of an aged, 90-something-year-old Boss, barking orders at Cashman like Mr. Burns does to Mr. Smithers…and Cashman responding with a “Yes, Boss”. Alas, it was not to be and now one of the last great icons - perhaps the last great 'king of the jungle' we'll see in professional sports - is gone.
After his reinstatement to baseball George changed. Once beyond unbearable and abrasive, he mellowed out somewhat and sought to rectify some of his past transgressions later in his life (not unlike Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge - not due to visits from three spirits, more likely due to the visit of one suspension). He became likeable (almost loveable) and while still in control, he allowed his staff leeway to run things. He did commercials. He allowed himself to be lampooned on Seinfeld. In death, the level and magnitude of his philanthropy and charity is just now being truly revealed.
This makes his passing all the more melancholy. I sometimes try to explain to people that do not follow professional sports (or have narcissistically labeled themselves too good to do so) how when you live and die with your team day in and day out they essentially become your extended family. George morphed into that crazy uncle (or grandpa) that was never approachable in the past but was now the first one at the family gatherings to start telling jokes. When he's not around anymore, you're sorry that it took so long to get to know him. So it is with George.
It's been a tough week for Yankees fans and for all of baseball. It IS nice to know that George goes out a winner, the way he would have wanted it. His team is the reigning World Champion, the last game he saw was a win (an 8-2 drubbing of the Mariners) and many of his players are proudly representing his team at the All Star Game he did not get a chance to see. I also chuckle knowing that George stole the spotlight from the "midsummer classic"...even in death, he's making Bud Selig's life miserable.
Love him or hate him, the guy liked to WIN. He was more than just an owner, he was a fan. He found himself emotionally involved with the team’s daily goings-on to a fault, for better or worse. As a result, he knew you had to spend money to make money (unlike some of his contemporaries that sit around and bitch about disparity while they tuck into another poached lobster purchased with wasted revenue sharing money). For that we Yankees fans should all be grateful.
In a world where things don’t seem to mean much anymore, it meant a lot knowing that while we cared about him, he also cared about us and did his darned best to put a winner out on the field year in and year out - not just for himself, but for the fans. Thanks for that, Boss.
Enjoy those calzones.