John Smallwood: Understanding why I despised Steinbrenner

Posted: July 14, 2010

I KNEW WHAT I should have done in writing about the passing of George Steinbrenner. I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

In a politically correct context, you do not rip somebody who just died, and the 80-year-old Steinbrenner's dying of a massive heart attack yesterday is a tragedy for his family and the entire baseball community.

Still, for as long as I can remember, I have des-pised Steinbrenner.

It's not because of anything he'd personally done to me. I never met the guy.

This is a sports kind of hatred, not the real thing. It's the kind of hatred you feel for the great player on the archrival team.

It's the kind of hatred Eagles fans feel for anything associated with the Cowboys, how Phillies fans feel about the Mets, Sixers fans about the Celtics, and Flyers fans about the Rangers.

It's the kind of hatred that fuels great sports rivalries but doesn't cross over into the real world when someone passes away or is injured or suffers a real-life tragedy.

So, under that context, and that context only, I'm not going talk about Steinbrenner with an artificial aura of praise and admiration.

Plenty of that is circulating in the news cycle of the last 24 hours - some of it heartfelt and some of it just what you are supposed to do in these situations.

For me to attempt that would be hypocritical and, ultimately, the greatest form of disrespect to a man who was arguably the greatest and most influential owner in the history of professional sports.

Some people are born to be the "bad guy." It's their role because they were so damn good at ripping your heart and crushing your soul.

Frankly, there's only one owner in professional sports I despised more than Steinbrenner - late Baltimore Colts owner Bob Irsay, who moved the team to Indianapolis in 1984. That, however, is another story.

I was only a few months past my seventh birthday on Jan. 3, 1973, when Steinbrenner led a group that purchased the New York Yankees from CBS for a reported $10 million.

It was a magical time for a Baltimore kid to get his introduction to major league baseball, because the Orioles were one of the power franchises. The Birds had won the World Series in 1970 and the American League pennant in '71. From 1969 through '74, Baltimore captured five AL East titles.

Winning baseball was all I had ever known.

The Yankees, who hadn't won a World Series since 1962, were a faded shell of a long-dead champion, nothing to be overly concerned about.

It didn't take long for the "Wicked Warlock of the Bronx" to strike with a ferocity that made my smiling Orioles logo frown.

In 1975, Steinbrenner made the move that effectively started baseball's free-agent era by signing Catfish Hunter away from the Oakland Athletics.

Steinbrenner built a dynasty over the scattered feathers of my beloved Orioles.

The most personal dig came in 1976 when Steinbrenner swept into Charm City and plucked superstar Reggie Jackson away from Baltimore with a 5-year contract worth a then-staggering $2.96 million.

As I grew from boy to man, Steinbrenner's Yankees won six World Series.

Last November, his Yankees defeated my adoptive hometown Phillies to win their 27th championship, the most in American professional sports by a considerable margin.

Steinbrenner himself became a cultural icon. His rants about his players and quick trigger finger in firing managers made as much news as his team's play.

Steinbrenner's Yankees fueled our fascination with chaos channeled into success.

"The Boss" was the ultimate expression of the hands-on, win-at-all-cost, I-don't-want-any-excuses owner, exactly the kind of owner I wanted to direct my favorite teams.

I've often said one of the drawbacks of becoming a sports writer is that I lost much of the fan in me.

I've gained a more objective perspective, one that allows me to look at sports without being clouded by the emotional highs and lows inherent with being a "true" fan.

I can't honestly say I ever rooted for Steinbrenner's Yankees, but I stopped actively rooting against them a good time ago.

With the wisdom of being able to look back and apply what I know now to what I knew then, I understand my anger at Steinbrenner was never actually about him personally.

It was about the envy of not having an owner like him, one who cared primarily about winning and was not worried about shrinking profit margins.

I didn't like George Steinbrenner - not because of who he was, but because of whom the owners of my teams were not. *

Send e-mail to

smallwj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/smallwood.

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