When the Yankees won the World Series last November, the team had a message for owner George Steinbrenner. "Boss, This is For You" was on the scoreboard in center field. Players and coaches repeated the message in interviews and it was a focal point of both the parade a ring ceremony earlier this season.
Steinbrenner died Tuesday of a heart attack in Tampa, all but ensuring that this year's push for a 28th championship will have a similar theme. Starting on Friday night when the Yankees return home for a game with the Rays, the second half of this season will be both a celebration of everything Steinbrenner meant to the Yankees and an inescapable pressure to honor that legacy with another ring in his memory. Combined with Yankees announcer Bob Sheppard's death over the weekend, it is going to make for a highly emotional second half at Yankee Stadium.
There really isn't any other way to pay tribute to a man who placed winning above just about everything else in his life. That drive to win led him to some dark places, but it ultimately created a Yankee organization that is the pinnacle of achievement for the world of sports.
It isn't just the seven titles the team won while he was the team's owner. It was the way he took a team from the doldrums in the early 70's and got them back to the World Series three times before the end of the decade. It was the way he turned the Yankees into a traveling road show that made tons of money for his fellow owners while giving them the blueprint for even more money by first moving the Yankees to cable television and then to the creation of the YES Network. It is the gleaming new stadium in the Bronx, it is the unyielding effort the franchise makes to get the best players in pinstripes and it is the way he created a brand that resonates well beyond the walls of the sports world.
For fans of the Yankees, there were many tough times with Steinbrenner. When he wasn't firing or hiring Billy Martin, he was issuing ultimatums about one thing or another, keeping the team in a state of eternal turmoil that seemed to serve no end other than ensuring that no one ever forgot he was in charge. The constant shuffling of managers and players in the 1980's led to bad teams and wasted prospects. His suspension for paying Howie Spira to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield was deeply embarrassing, but it allowed the team some space to build the foundation for the teams that won four World Series crowns between 1996 and 2000.
Those titles finally allowed a different Steinbrenner to emerge. The bellowing maniac still popped up from time to time, but that image was gradually replaced by the benevolent overseer who stepped back from day-to-day operations and was content to revel in the success of his team.
Without all the vitriol, it became easier to see the genius of the way Steinbrenner ran the team. He made money, to be sure, but could have made a lot more of it if he didn't pour so much money back into the team. You would never have to worry about the Yankees cutting corners or doing things halfway with Steinbrenner in charge, because he was never going to say no to someone who came to him with an idea about how to win.
And even when he was acting like a lunatic, he constantly reminded you that the Yankees mattered. There was nothing small about Steinbrenner's drive or ambition and, consequently, there was nothing small about the Yankees. It was melodramatic and occasionally ridiculous, but it was always engaging and almost always entertaining. And, more than that, it never felt dishonest.
Maybe Steinbrenner cared too much and maybe he acted without reason too often, but it always felt like he was doing what he felt deep within his volatile soul.
That drive and that financial largesse wound up making baseball a better sport overall. Look around baseball right now and see the way that teams sign young stars to long-term contracts that keep them from free agency, and you see the way the Boss changed how baseball conducted business. Look at the Cliff Lee trade last week and the way the Mariners were able to command a king's ransom for a half-season of work from the Rangers because Texas knew that the Yankees would pull the trigger on a deal to make their already good team slightly better. One team gets needed young talent, one team makes a serious push to win a title and it all happened because the Yankees loomed in the distance.
Complain about the financial imbalances in baseball if you like, but Steinbrenner's ability to use them to his advantage caused the other 29 teams to react and do business in a better way because they wanted to beat him. Everyone benefits from that, from the league to the teams to the players to the fans.
That's why it is impossible to write the history of baseball -- the history of American professional sports, really -- without devoting a large section of it to Steinbrenner. He changed the Yankees and he changed baseball during his 37 years as an owner, leaving a stamp that won't soon be forgotten on either.