First, to the McCann of the Hour…
I didn’t have a favorite Brave before, but I do now.
Thank you Brian McCann for ending a streak of twelve consecutive negative All-Star decisions that seemed destined to reach thirteen on habit if not merit. And you’re welcome, Brian McCann, for our firing you up properly at Citi Field this past weekend. We’ll do our best to be the ones who make use of the home field advantage you were kind enough to earn for us.
Hence, you can stop hitting three-run doubles starting…now.
Next, to the greatest clue that the National League was finally going to win one…
When the All-Star rosters were announced, three 2004 Mets were included in the festivities: National League starting third baseman David Wright; National League reserve shortstop Jose Reyes; and American League reserve handyman Ty Wigginton.
Oh, that’s it, I thought, this is the year. No offense to the 2004 Mets, four of whom — Mike Piazza, T#m Gl@v!ne, Steve Trachsel and Ricky Bottalico — were members of the previous N.L. winners in 1996, but the presence of Good Ol’ Wiggy on any team at the major league level all but guarantees that team a losing record in the season he’s one of its members.
2002 Mets: 75-86
2003 Mets: 66-95
2004 Mets: 71-91
2004 Pirates: 72-89
2005 Pirates: 67-95
2006 Devil Rays: 61-101
2007 Devil Rays: 66-96
2007 Astros: 73-89
2008 Astros: 86-75 (exceptions proving rules, et al)
2009 Orioles: 64-98
2010 Orioles: 29-59
2010 A.L. All-Stars 0-1
Entering Tuesday night, the Curse of Ty Wigginton brought Ty’s teams a cumulative record 244 games collectively under .500. What were the odds Sluggo would prove anything but Schleprock for the heretofore indomitable American League?
Finally, to the definition of an All-Star…
Except desiring for as many remotely deserving Mets as possible to be named to the N.L. squad, I don’t get too worked up over who makes these teams, but I do kind of assume a certain stellar quality is inherent in their composition. Yet as I watched each All-Star side introduced, I found myself thinking quite often, “Who the hell is that?”
There are usually a couple of guys answering to that description every July, but this year’s cast felt particularly anonymous. Maybe it’s me not doing my homework, but when, in the midst of the decisive seventh inning, Matt Thornton was pitching to Chris Young, I rather wanted my proverbial money back.
Matt Thornton? Chris Young? Who vs. Who?
Now that I’ve given Chris Young bulletin board material for our upcoming series in Arizona, rest assured I am familiar with his name and have an idea of his talent. Yet I have to confess if I had been asked to name a dozen…no, two-dozen potential National League All-Star outfielders two weeks ago, Chris Young wouldn’t have occurred to me. I wouldn’t have rejected him based on credentials. I just wouldn’t have thought of him.
And I still have no idea who Matt Thornton is.
Winning this game was rewarding, just as winning in general is enticing. These are sports; sports are competitive; we root for our on-field surrogates to win so we can feel like winners. With an All-Star Game, it’s just for a night (and, if we’re überlucky, four to seven nights come autumn). With our teams, it’s for keeps. We love the Mets no matter what. When they win, we love the Mets a little more.
Maybe a lot more.
We love the 1969 Mets. We love the 1986 Mets. We love various editions of Mets who didn’t win it all probably because they won more that we expected them to. We love Met players who helped us win. We would love Met players we can’t stand if they had helped us win. We would find a place in our heart for the most hardcore denizens of Met Hell had they been every bit as unpleasant as we recall them yet had been successful in the process of alienating us. We’d find the nicest things to say about Richie Hebner, Bobby Bonilla, Roberto Alomar and Vince Coleman, to name the four we’ve singled out as our most hellish. (Hell, I’ve found nice things to say about a Brave for one night.)
George Steinbrenner’s passing is being treated with head-of-state reverence because the teams he owned won a lot. A lot. He’s been credited for seven World Series victories; the seventh was attained under the practical auspices of his son, Hal, though what’s one extra trophy between family? Let’s say it’s seven.
Seven World Series in modern times is a spectacular record. It explains to a great extent why Steinbrenner’s death has been given greater coverage than Wellington Mara’s, Leon Hess’s, Sonny Werblin’s, Roy Boe’s, Ned Irish’s, John McMullen’s, Mike Burke’s and Joan Payson’s combined. They all owned or ran teams in the New York area in the past forty-plus years, many of their teams winning championships during the same era Steinbrenner’s were winning theirs. Except for Mara (whose longevity was as astounding as his success), their passings were one-day stories, sometimes inside-the-paper/“in other news…” stories.
George Steinbrenner transcended sports ownership because he forced himself onto the back pages and leads of newscasts. He was the most famous sports owner in America, never mind New York. He would have been well-regarded for the track record the Yankees put up had all he done was work behind the scenes, like a Wellington Mara, or show a knack for star-making, like a Sonny Werblin, or sign the checks and happily sit back and watch good things happen, like a Joan Payson.
He had to be megalomaniacally more than that. Maybe he figured turning George Steinbrenner into a brand name was the key to revitalizing the New York Yankees as a brand name. Maybe making himself part of the story — Steinbrenner’s bluster, Steinbrenner’s bombast, Steinbrenner’s antics, Steinbrenner’s coffers — was just the right ingredient at the dawn of the souped-up media age. His first championship teams were famously termed the Bronx Zoo. Zoo…circus…the biggest show in town, that’s for sure. Steinbrenner made it about him and it made the Yankees famous for more than winning.
Or he made the Yankees famous for winning and wanting to win at all costs. That’s the thing they’re praising Steinbrenner for: how much he wanted it, how he’d do anything for it. It’s a strange thing to give him credit for. Did Louis Nippert not want to win? Louis Nippert was the owner of the Cincinnati Reds in 1975 and 1976 when the Big Red Machine churned out its back-to-back championships the two years before Steinbrenner’s Yankees won their first two.
Did John Galbreath not want to win? John Galbreath owned the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979, world champions the year after Steinbrenner’s Yankees won their first two. Ruly Carpenter, Peter O’Malley, August Busch, Jr., Edward Bennett Williams, Tom Monaghan, Ewing Kaufman, Nelson Doubleday, Carl Pohlad, Walter Haas, Marge Schott, the executives of Labatt Breweries and Ted Turner all followed as the principal owners whose teams won World Series before Steinbrenner’s won another in 1996.
Did they not want to win? Did they not try to win? Some shied from public attention. Some showered in it and could be as outrageous at times as Steinbrenner was as a matter of course. But none was or will be eulogized for how much they valued winning. It’s as if Steinbrenner invented the pursuit of championships…and maybe he did, certainly in the relentless, go-for-broke way we understand it now.
One of the common themes that has arisen in paying tribute to George Steinbrenner is the assertion that no matter his methods — no budget too enormous, no tantrum too petty — any fan would have wanted that kind of commitment to winning, because winning is everything. Being that this is New York, it is usually left to fans of Brand X over here to fill in the blank. “Sure, I’m a Mets fan, but I wish George Steinbrenner had owned my team because he did whatever it took to win!”
That’s not a universal opinion, but I’ve heard it quite a bit through various media since Steinbrenner’s death was announced. I suppose it’s the highest form of tribute: I didn’t like his product but I sure liked what it produced.
I’d love to sit on my high horse and tell you George Steinbrenner owning my team — the Mets — would have sickened me, but I imagine I would have dealt with it OK. He was an unalloyed embarrassment to the sport of baseball and to the human race for roughly two-thirds of his tenure, but who in that sort of position doesn’t make you cringe now and then? Doubleday didn’t? The Wilpons don’t? If you’re a Jets fan, does everything Woody Johnson says or does strike you as benign? Are you, if you’re partial to the Knicks or Rangers, thrilled by the presence of the Dolans? (Try not to laugh or wretch at the thought.) Has Charles Wang brought nothing but happiness and dignity to you Islanders fans? Except that it can’t get any worse in Newark or Brooklyn than it did in East Rutherford, is Mikhail Prokhorov projecting to make much of a net-positive difference in your life as a Nets fan?
Not likely to all of the above. But you don’t really think about it one way or the other, do you? We haven’t stopped being Mets fans no matter how dunderheaded we believe our ownership group is on occasion, and I doubt I’d have stopped had the Dolans or Marge Schott or Charlie Finley or the ghost of Walter O’Malley gotten involved. M. Donald Grant ran the place after Mrs. Payson died and ran it into the ground, and I didn’t go anywhere. Lorinda de Roulet took control after Grant’s presence became untenable and made the situation even worse, and I didn’t go anywhere. There may have been Yankees fans who cringed themselves so out of shape over Steinbrenner firing managers and haranguing underlings and paying off hoods to spy on superstars that they quit the franchise. But the ratio of those attracted by Steinbrenner’s teams’ output since 1996 to those repelled by his actions before then (and occasionally after then) is probably astronomical.
If George Steinbrenner had owned the Mets, I imagine I would have coped with the unbecoming aspects and hoped for the best. But at no point since he became the brand name George Steinbrenner have I wanted the actual George Steinbrenner running my team. My mind generally doesn’t work that way. That owner and that franchise were made for each other, and you can take that as a knock or you can take that as a compliment. It’s your Rorschach Test.
Besides, if I really wanted a George Steinbrenner-owned team, I knew where to find one.
When Wellington Mara died in 2005, the coverage was unabashedly positive. He was an engine for growth in the NFL and, despite some bumps in the ’60s and ’70s, led the New York Football Giants mostly for the better. Woven within the tributes to his accomplishments was endless testimony to what a good man he was. There was not a bad word spoken about Wellington Mara.
I mention that because with George Steinbrenner, there are lots of good things being said about his charitable impulses. “Nobody knows how much he did…” is the way it’s posited, and then it’s spelled out how much he did. And that is fantastic. The man had resources and he had the heart to put them to great use. There’s no telling how many lives are better because of George Steinbrenner’s generosity.
But I find it curious that all these anecdotes and examples are brought up as inoculation because it’s obvious that no matter how much philanthropy the man may have committed, we’re not going to remember George Steinbrenner as a philanthropist. Likewise, no matter how many championship banners he added to the Yankee collection, we’re not going to remember George Steinbrenner as a sportsman. Even allowing for the soft-soaping of reputations of the suddenly deceased, our first thoughts are inevitably going to gravitate to Steinbrenner the outrageous, Steinbrenner the mercurial, Steinbrenner, the bizarre and absurd.
He acted like a nut. It may have worked on some level. It may have pulled a mediocre organization from its slumber and it may have sparked bursts of championship play, but he was nutty. He was firing people left and right, and not just managers and general managers. As Dave Anderson recounted in the Times, he made loads of lives miserable. From the time he began barking orders and demanding haircuts to the time he was suspended for enlisting Howie Spira to gather dirt on Dave Winfield, he was an incorrigible bastard, no matter what splendid gestures he was undertaking when the cameras were off and the microphones were put away.
Once his lifetime suspension was lifted and the Yankees were back on the road to dynasty, he didn’t seem quite as nutty anymore. Now and again, as if to prove he could still pull it off, he’d be his old self (theatrically directing traffic to one of the snarled Yankee Stadium lots; characterizing Hideki Irabu as a fat, pussy or pus-sy toad; playing the us against the world card when it suited his PR), but the Steinbluster faded as a back page staple. Perhaps he was, after a lengthy rain delay of the soul, at last on his path, as the Buddhists might say, and it would be unfair to forever measure the total Steinbrenner simply by the Steinbrenner he was until he was 63 years old or thereabouts. Perhaps even the most impregnable factory can only blow its stack so many times before running low on steam. Perhaps his teams won so often that after a while, everything about him seemed as mellow and endearing as people wanted it to seem.
George Steinbrenner may have been a wonderful man who indulged in some terrible behavior. Or he may been a terrible man who compensated for it with some wonderful behavior. As much as some wish to remember him as nothing but a winner, it’s instructive to keep in mind that most of us spend our lives playing pretty close to .500 ball.