George Steinbrenner's basic defense of the bizarre way he runs the New York Yankees is that it works. You can argue with his bluff-and-bluster manner, his insensitive remarks, his impetuous hiring and firing of managers, and the way he turns the clubhouse into a miniature Grand Central Station for arriving and departing players, he says, but you can't argue with his record.
Winning is the name of the game, insists George, and the bottom line is that he has given New York a winner. But has he, really?
Steinbrenner, who just made what has come to be his annual managerial change by replacing Billy Martin with Yogi Berra, has completed 11 years as the team's principal owner. During this period the Yankees have won five division titles, four pennants, and two world championships.
That's not bad. In terms of total number of pennants and World Series victories, in fact, it's the best record of any team in either league during that same period. But then the Yankees aren't just any team, are they George?
No, the Yankees are a team whose combination of tradition and location virtually guarantees a better than average amount of success. So the question isn't whether Steinbrenner's record is good by normal standards, but whether it is good by New York Yankee standards. And the answer is a resounding "No."
For 30 years, from 1915 to 1944, the team operated under the aegis of Col. Jacob Ruppert or his heirs. During that period it won 14 pennants and 10 World Series.
For the next 20 years, from 1945 to 1964, the team was owned by a partnership of Dan Topping, Del Webb, and Larry McPhail. In those two decades it won 15 pennants and 10 more World Series.
Obviously the Yankees win more than their share of the time. It goes with the territory, so to speak. So if Steinbrenner thinks his record is really a good one considering the team involved, one can only suggest that he brush up on his math and play around with a few of the above figures for a while.
Also, since George is such an exponent of the "What have you done for me lately" school of thought, one can hardly help pointing out that most of the winning in his era occurred in the 1970s -- which is getting to be ancient history in his lexicon. In the last five years, in fact, the Yankees have won exactly two division titles, one penant, and zero World Series.
To be fair to Steinbrenner, one should note that he did take over the team at a low point in its history after an eight-year stretch when it was owned by CBS and won no pennants at all. In that sense then, he did rebuild a once-proud franchise into some semblance of its former glory. But before he gets too carried away by it all, someone had better remind him that he still has a long way to go to even come close to the records of Ruppert or the Topping-Webb-McPhail trio. And while it is true that those earlier ownerships were usually able to corral the best talent, the free-spending Steinbrenner enjoys at least as much of an advantage, and probably an even greater one, operating, as he does, in the free-agent era and being located in such a lucrative TV market.
The Steinbrenner Yankees, in fact, have appeared to be by far the most talented team in the American League year-in and year-out. A good case can be made, therefore, that whatever success the team has enjoyed has come despite the owner -- not because of him.
Steinbrenner prefers his own theory, of course. The man has such an ego that he actually seems to think his tirades and disruptive tactics get the team fired up and contribute to its success.He apparently sees himself as some sort of latter-day Knute Rockne, since with his lack of baseball background he has never understood that football-style appeals to the emotions don't accomplish much in this totally different sport which moves across the spring and summer in its own measured pace.
Anyway, given the Yankees' perennial edge in talent, it certainly seems probable that George's methods may have cost the team a couple of pennants. Meanwhile, it also seems most likely that on those occasions when the Yankees have come out on top, they have done so in spite of the owner's interference.
Last season he once again put the team to its annual test in this regard. After shelling out big money in the free-agent draft for sluggers Don Baylor and Steve Kemp, then re-hiring Martin as manager in a move that had "showbiz" written all over it, Steinbrenner appeared to have a strong contender for American League East honors -- and perhaps another pennant and World Series as well.
All season, however, the team was erratic, the owner and manager engaged in incessant public bickering, and the players never stopped grumbling -- in other words, a typical summer in the Bronx. And once again this supertalented club was unable to overcome all the disruptions, eventually finishing a disappointing third in its division, seven games behind the victorious Baltimore Orioles.
So Steinbrenner put on the music and started up his managerial merry-go-round again -- the one that has seen him make an incredible 11 changes now in as many years. Ralph Houk was the manager when George took over, so of course he was sacked after that season and Bill Virdon installed for 1974, followed by Martin in 1975, Bob Lemon in 1978, Martin again in 1979, Dick Howser in 1980, Gene Michael in 1981, and Lemon again midway in the same year. But Steinbrenner was just getting warmed up with these changes. In 1982 he started out with Lemon, fired him and brought in Michael again, then sacked Michael and put Clyde King in the hot seat to cap off a ridiculous season in which the Yankees had three different managers and five different pitching coaches. Then last year he brought Martin back for his third term, announcing the move via a publicity blitz capped by a ludicrous, hyped-up press conference and giving Billy a five-year, $2 million contract even though he himself must surely have known what just about every commentator said at the time -- that this third "marriage" would be lucky to last one year, let alone five.
The happy couple did manage to make it through one season, though just barely , since it was obvious from August on that Martin would be gone before next spring. So now Billy is a $400,000-a-year "top adviser" to Steinbrenner (whatever that means), and Berra is the latest occupant of that strange position in which a dedicated, lifelong baseball man has to listen every day while a man who knows virtually nothing about the game tells him how to manage his team.Good luck, Yogi.