LOS ANGELES – The New York Yankees had reclaimed what they consider their rightful place, atop baseball’s throne. They celebrated on opening day, the champions with their rings, and George Steinbrenner came in for a little teasing from the man he had appointed as captain of the team.
The owner had worn his Ohio State ring. Derek Jeter told him to take it off and replace it with that shiny new Yankees ring.
“Those are the memories that you remember,” Jeter said, “those intimate moments.”
Jeter never saw Steinbrenner again. He had planned on visiting him Wednesday or Thursday, before the Yankees resumed their schedule. Steinbrenner died Tuesday, nine days after his 80th birthday and eight months after the Yankees won their first World Series championship in nine years.
To Steinbrenner, any year without a championship was a failure, as Alex Rodriguez learned when he met the owner upon joining the Yankees in 2004.
“Within the first two minutes, he said the words, ‘We have to win a world championship,’ ” Rodriguez said, “about three or four times.”
As a young player, Jeter was doubled off base in a game the Yankees won. After the game, Steinbrenner yelled at Jeter never to let that happen again.
“He expected perfection, and that rubbed off,” Jeter said. “Whether it was the players, the front office, the people working at the stadium, it didn’t make a difference.”
Job security virtually depended upon perfection. In his first 20 years as owner, Steinbrenner changed managers 20 times.
“He really made ‘You’re fired’ fashionable,” Hall of Fame outfielder Dave Winfield said. “Donald Trump just branded it and marketed it.”
Joe Torre accepted the job as Yankees manager in 1995 – in November – and then asked Steinbrenner to let him fly home that night, since his wife was pregnant.
“I’ll let you go this time,” Steinbrenner told Torre, “but after the baby is born, your (rear) is mine.”
Steinbrenner held himself accountable too. He spent lavishly, if not always wisely, in his quest for victory.
Said Michael Weiner, executive director of the players’ union: “There have been instances in the game where owners don’t try their best to win. Nobody can ever accuse George Steinbren- ner of not trying his best to win.”
Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno, who grew up a Yankees fan, reflected on how Steinbrenner apologized to the people of New York when the team had played poorly.
“He talked about how it was his responsibility for his fans – the guys driving trucks, driving taxis and working in the New York area – to put a winner on the field,” Moreno said. “So I just thought, if you’re going to own a team, it’s part of your responsibility to be a part of the community and put a competitive team on the field.”
Steinbrenner spent so many more millions than rival teams – because he parlayed the Yankees brand into a cash cow that generated so many more millions than rival teams – that other owners voted to enact payroll taxes that only the Yankees would pay.
The vote was 29-1, with Steinbrenner and the Yankees opposed. Yet Commissioner Bud Selig, who previously owned the Milwaukee Brewers – in baseball’s smallest market – forged a surprisingly respectful relationship.
“No two people who had as differing agendas as we did should have ever gotten along,” Selig said.
Steinbrenner had a lighter side and a compassionate side, even if he hid them behind the bluster. Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt said Steinbrenner was the first owner to congratulate him on his purchase of the Dodgers.
He would hand Bible verses to Andy Pettitte. He would put his Ohio State Buckeyes up against Jeter’s Michigan Wolverines, or Selig’s Wisconsin Badgers.
Steinbrenner did not advertise his many charitable donations, but MLB president Bob DuPuy remembered them Tuesday, during a morning ceremony at which the Angels and MLB celebrated the renovation of the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Ana.
“Baseball lost one of its true giants and titans,” DuPuy said. “He was extremely philanthropic in Tampa and New York. The Boys & Girls Club meant a great deal to him, which makes this so much more poignant.”
In one telephone conversation with Steinbrenner, Selig jokingly complained that his wife told him he had to take out the garbage every Tuesday, no matter that he was the commissioner.
“For the next three months,” Selig said, “he called every Tuesday morning to make sure I had taken the garbage out.”