Steinbrenner the main reason for Yankees' success

I do a lot of radio spots; nearly 250 last year. I enjoy doing them -- they're called "phoners" in the business -- because they're fun, because I can do them in my pajamas, and also because they give me a pretty good idea of what baseball fans are actually talking about. And for the last few weeks, it seems that baseball fans, or at least the radio hosts who talk to baseball fans, just can't stop wondering if George Steinbrenner is jeopardizing the Yankees' 2003 chances with his public rants about his shortstop and his team's lack of recent postseason success.

The fans aren't alone. In the most recent USA Today Sports Weekly, editor Paul White asks and answers the "10 biggest questions heading toward the 2003 season." And No. 10 is, "Will meddle of the owner hurt the Yankees?"

Therein, White rhetorically asks Steinbrenner, "Haven't you noticed the correlation between keeping quiet and consistently winning? Were we fools to believe it had finally sunk in?" White concludes, "The Yankees have darn-near everything they need and the wherewithal to buy anything else if the situation suddenly changes. All they have to do is make sure their owner doesn't throw his weight around, just money. There's no question about that."

Perhaps. But it seems to me that anybody who thinks the Yankees can't win if the owner meddles must be either very young or have a very short memory, because for a spell in the late 1970s and early '80s the Yankees were famous for their meddling owner.

And they won consistently.

I think it's safe to say that no collection of baseball players has ever had more books devoted to it than the New York Yankees of that era. If you include the books written by Yankees, the number must be something like two dozen.

Here's some copy from the inside flap of one of them, Ed Linn's Steinbrenner's Yankees:

George M. Steinbrenner III, the self-anointed, undoubting Emperor of the Bronx -- never have his antics and utterances, his cunning and bombast, been so nakedly revealed. Whether we see him storming the free-agent market with the quickest checkbook in the game, or manipulating the egos of his high-priced, temperamental players, or shuffling managers in a never-ending attempt to rule his ballfield and dugout as tightly as his front office, here is how George did or did not do it: exactly what happened, precisely what was said, expletives undeleted and no holds barred ...

Steinbrenner's Yankees was published in 1982. Over the previous six seasons, 1976 through 1981, the Yankees had won five division titles, four American League pennants, and two World Series. They'd also won more regular-season games than any other team in the major leagues.

True, you can argue that the Yankees would have won even more games if not for their meddling owner.

To which I would respond with my bi-annual Babe Ruth Argument ...

There are people who say that if the Babe had only been able to lay off the hot dogs and the booze and the dames, well then by gosh he might have been a real ballplayer instead of the fat clown as portrayed by John Goodman. But you can't look at a person's components in isolation. The same personality that helped make Ruth one of the world's great hedonists also helped make Ruth one of the world's great athletes. Similarly, if Ty Cobb hadn't been such a colossal jerk, he might not have been such a colossal ballplayer.

That's the case with Steinbrenner, too. Yes, he meddles -- and lies, and bullies, and blackmails -- but he also wants to win more than any other owner in baseball, and you can't separate these like the egg yolk from the white. If you want one, you have to accept the other.

And you know, occasionally the meddling is a big help. I mean, it's obviously a big help when the meddling owner pounds his meaty fist on the conference table and says, "I want Jason Giambi no matter what it costs!" But Steinbrenner has made some good decisions over the years that weren't quite so obvious.

In their book Detroit Tigers Lists and More, co-authors Mark Pattison and David Raglin report (and I've confirmed this with a Detroit baseball writer) that in November of 1997 the Tigers and Yankees worked out a big trade. The Yankees would get pitching prospects Mike Drumright and Roberto Duran, and the Tigers would get Bernie Williams, who was set to make a large sum of money upon gaining free agency at the conclusion of the 1998 season.

Tigers general manager Randy Smith thought the deal was done ... only to be informed by Yankees general manager Bob Watson that the deal was off. Why? Because Boss Steinbrenner nixed the trade. And in 1998, 1) the Yankees won 114 games, 2) the Yankees won the World Series, shortly after which 3) the Yankees signed Williams to a new seven-year, $87.5 million contract.

There's another misconception about Steinbrenner's Yankees, which is that between their World Series appearances in 1981 and 1996 -- 14 seasons -- they were little more than a budget-busting joke. The truth, however, is somewhat more complex. In 1982 the Yankees did crash to a 79-83 record, their worst since 1967. But from 1983 through 1988, they won at least 83 games in every season. In 1993 they won 88 games, and in 1994 they had the best record in the American League when the strike hit.

So there were really only four years, 1989 through 1992, when the Yankees weren't the Yankees. And for the latter two of those four seasons, Steinbrenner was serving a suspension that somewhat limited his ability to meddle.

If you read what's been written about Steinbrenner, you'll have a hard time escaping the conclusion that he's something less than a wonderful person. But if you ignore much of what's been written and instead focus on the facts, you'll also have a hard time escaping the conclusion that the Yankees have won six World Series since 1973 not in spite of their owner, but because of him.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season and irregularly in the offseason. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.