Steinbrenner birthday candles mark winds of change

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Born on the Fourth of July in 1930, George Steinbrenner turns 77 on Wednesday. His family -- wife Joan, four children and 13 grandchildren -- will gather at his home in Tampa, Fla., to fete the patriarch and feast on cake. The honoree likely will augment his slice with a generous scoop of ice cream, his favorite sweet.

Yet something's missing from this annual convergence of birthday and holiday. Fireworks will fill the evening sky over Tampa Bay. But when it comes to the fireworks long associated with Steinbrenner, only occasional traces still flicker. After running the New York Yankees for 34 years, he's in the twilight of his ownership career.

As with all else concerning the Boss' storied, stormy epoch, the transition to a new generation is filled with Sturm und Drang. The subtext to the family birthday party is family upheaval. Steve Swindal, once Steinbrenner's designated successor to run the Yankees and for now still his son-in-law, will be absent. Swindal and Jenny Steinbrenner are getting divorced, causing his dismissal from the Yankees, as well.

That's caused Steinbrenner's sons, Hank and Hal, to take more active roles with the team, which they've previously spent their lives avoiding. Both have shrunk from the spotlight of baseball and skirted the stress of working for their father in that business. Now they have no choice. There's an $800 million stadium to be built. There's an underachieving team to be re-built. There's a patriarch in decline who needs them.

Howard Rubenstein, the New York PR maven and Steinbrenner mouthpiece, rebuts any notion the Boss is in a bad state of repair. He insists this is just good business. One, the Yankees have become a mega-enterprise, recently valued by Forbes at $1.2 billion. As chairman, Steinbrenner must delegate far more than when it was a far smaller business. Two, this is garden-variety succession planning, according to Rubenstein: "George says, 'You've got to let the young elephants in the tent,' and he's opened up the flap."

One of those young pachyderms, Hal Steinbrenner, insists the Boss is still very much the Boss. He's delegating many day-to-day details to his sons -- Hal on the business side, Hank on baseball matters -- but not ceding his powers.

"Believe me, he's still making the decisions," says Hal Steinbrenner.

Team officials and Rubenstein take pains to portray the Yankees' majority owner as the same old George, minus the old gale-level bluster and energy. They say he's in his Legends Field office every afternoon --sometimes into the evening -- fretting about the team, checking the progress of the new Yankee Stadium (to open in 2009), peppering subordinates with phone calls.

Testifies Yankees president Randy Levine: "I talk to him sometimes 10 times a day. He talks to the general manager [Brian Cashman] many times a day. George is still very, very active."

The public disappearance of a man whose availability, volatility and quotability once made him constant fodder for the New York tabloids is harder to explain away. Not that Rubenstein, who issues canned statements from Steinbrenner and declined ESPN.com's interview request, doesn't try.

"He decided to be more measured in his responses," he says. "He no longer wanted to shoot from the hip and shoot himself in the foot."

But health problems in recent years have clearly taken a toll, as some of his limited public appearances make clear. In 2003, Steinbrenner fainted at the funeral of his friend Otto Graham, the football legend. Last August, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Yankee Stadium, Steinbrenner spoke only briefly. In October, at the University of North Carolina, he fainted while watching granddaughter Haley Swindal perform in the lead role of "Cabaret."

One Yankees official says, on condition of anonymity, that Steinbrenner's office hours are shorter than the party line suggests. In addition, both a business associate and a friend who have recently spent time with Steinbrenner provide a uniform assessment: He's not the same George. (Neither would be quoted by name, because they want to preserve their relationships with him.)

"In the last 12 months there's been a perceptible change," says the business associate, who was particularly struck by the decline of Steinbrenner's formerly steel-trap memory. "He's not as mentally sharp."

The friend was struck by Steinbrenner's seeming inability, during a visit, to elevate their conversation beyond small-talk.

"He's different," the friend said. "He's not as he was."

That's why the sudden exit of Swindal created a vacuum. He'd been entrusted with an array of responsibilities, from overseeing stadium construction to looking after the club's interests at the YES Network, of which it is 36-percent owner. He was a buffer between Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman. He handled problems with the team's Staten Island minor-league team. And then he started running into big problems of his own -- on Feb. 15 a DUI arrest; on March 27 a divorce petition from Jenny Steinbrenner.

Now the Yankees have capable front-office executives in Randy Levine and chief operating officer Lonn Trost. But the Boss' modus operandi always has called for a strong hand from the majority owner. While he has no plans to retire as long as he's celebrating birthdays, he was thinking about succession. The aging lion wanted a next-generation Steinbrenner to step up to the plate, taking an active hand in the Yankees and ensuring a continued strong family hand.

The son-in-law assumed that role because the sons didn't want it. Hank Steinbrenner, 50, preferred to run Kinsman Farm, the family's Thoroughbred racing operation in Ocala, Fla. Hal Steinbrenner, 38, preferred to run the family's hotel business. The two daughters weren't asked. Jenny Swindal, 47, is considered brilliant (attending the University of North Carolina as a prestigious Morehead Scholar) and she has a business degree. But she is a woman, and George Steinbrenner is a confessed male chauvinist. Jessica Steinbrenner, 43, takes a hand in the Thoroughbred operation and writes children's books. It's her husband, Felix Lopez, who has a job with the Yankees, primarily focused on developing Latin talent.

By all accounts, George Steinbrenner was as hard on Hank and Hal as his own father was on him. Henry G. Steinbrenner, a Cleveland shipping magnate whom the Boss once described as the ultimate boss, was "a superachiever that I would never match." Young George couldn't get into his father's alma mater, MIT; couldn't match his father's record as a collegiate hurdler (at Williams); couldn't get a compliment out of him until he bought the Yankees in 1973.

"The first smart thing he's ever done," Henry Steinbrenner once said.

Hank and Hal Steinbrenner each tried working with the Yankees and each soon departed. They remained in other family businesses, but those were not as subject to constant, withering scrutiny and criticism as the baseball business. Nor did either have their father's love of the limelight -- particularly Hank.

"George is a Barnum & Bailey guy; Hank is not," says Mike Boyd, manager of Kinsman Farm for 11 years.

The aspect of the Thoroughbred business Henry G. Steinbrenner II particularly enjoyed was nearly bookish in nature. He researched horses' bloodlines at great length and made matches between stallions and the farm's 30 to 35 breeding mares. Kinsman had a decent track record, producing five Kentucky Derby entrants (though no winners) and earning the Steinbrenner scion respect in the horse racing world.

Yet even far from the bright lights of New York, Hank couldn't escape the long shadow of his father. Consider the time the Steinbrenners bought into a National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) racing team in 2001. This was at the urging of Hank, who liked auto racing as well as horse racing, and who was to take the lead in their involvement.

It didn't work that way, according to co-owner Darrell Gwynn, "Hank wasn't able to show his true talent, because his dad would always step in and overrule him," he says, recalling the Billy Martin moment when George wanted to fire the whole crew four days before the U.S. Nationals. That didn't happen, but, says Gwynn, "Hank would usually take the path of least resistance and give in."

The Steinbrenners had committed $10 million over three years to the NHRA team, according to Gwynn. But the father wanted to change the agreement after the first season, sharply reducing the amount for the remaining two years. Gwynn recalls a 3½-hour scream-a-thon with George, which Hank left after the first half-hour.

Now Hank spends half of his time on Yankees business at Legends Field. He's focusing primarily on baseball operations, according to Randy Levine. Perhaps finding and evaluating diamond talent is a transferable skill from breeding horses. Former Kinsman colleague Mike Boyd, who's talked plenty of baseball with Hank over the years, thinks so.
"People are selling Hank short if they don't think so," says Boyd. "He is a very bright guy."

Hank's ability to get up to speed in the MLB fast lane isn't hampered just by his late entry to it but his personal circumstances. He's just gone through a tough divorce of his own, finalized last August. Though his ex-wife has primary custody of their four children, he got a good deal of shared responsibility for them in the divorce decree. Hal still lives near his ex and their kids in the Tampa Bay area. While he was never much one for extended trips to New York, he's less so now.

Younger brother Hal doesn't like the New York ruckus any more than ever, either. But he has more of a taste for the rough and tumble of business, according to people who've observed both. He got an MBA from the University of Florida and he's been more aggressive in growing the family's hotel ownership than his father ever was. When he took over the operation in 1996, it consisted of one property in Tampa and two in Ocala. Now there are eight, including two in Sarasota that Hal built with a non-Steinbrenner investment group.

"Hal doesn't like the spotlight, but he's always struck me as the more ambitious," says one person close to the Yankees. "If he sees this as something he wants to do, he'll go for it."

Seems he already is.

His increased involvement with the team goes back about a year, but has increased since Swindal departed. He's jumped with both feet into the stadium project in particular. He's got experience from the hotel business in the construction of public facilities and the ways of contractors. Though the Yankee Stadium isn't exactly your average Marriott, this kid assuredly does have a transferable skill.

And though Hal Steinbrenner bears some resemblance to the young George Steinbrenner, he still bears no stylistic resemblance. "Prince Hal," as he's sometimes known behind his back, is a cool-headed finance guy, not a hot-headed micromanager like the old man.

"I tend to delegate more readily than [him], I think," Hal Steinbrenner says. "I like to hire really good people and let them make the decisions."

He acknowledges that both their differences in style and their complicated father-son relationship made for an untenable working relationship back in the '90s.

"No doubt he can be a difficult boss. Everybody knows that. We certainly had our issues," says Hal Steinbrenner.

But now he's more mature and his father is more of a delegator.

"He's more wiling to pass off some of the daily headaches," Hal Steinbrenner says.

Hal has gotten good early reviews from people he's dealt with, but, as one notes, "The real question is: Does he have the appetite for New York?"

The same goes for Hank, who if anything is more private than Hal. Which of these spotlight-shunning Steinbrenners will one day emerge as principal operator of the world's most spotlight-bathed sports franchise?

Well, Randy Levine and Howard Rubenstein are adamant that this isn't a succession battle and neither Hank nor Hal is angling to be anointed Boss II. About this, at least, they are shooting straight.

There will be no Boss II, in the sense of an owner who bestrides the tabloids' back pages and revels in the bold stroke. And whoever it may be, his biggest challenge will come after George Steinbrenner is gone.

How will they maintain the franchise's luminous luster and its big financial edge?

"He's set such a high standard to meet," says one Yankees official. "George will loom over the franchise long after he's gone."

John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."

On July 3, a photo in an ESPN.com story about New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was incorrectly identified as son Hank Steinbrenner. The photo was of Hank Steinbrenner, former secretary general of the U.S. Soccer Federation.