The Steinbrenner Good for MLB Debate… Ode to an Icon

Read the opposing argument from Loyal Homer.

George Steinbrenner’s unparalleled success in baseball deserves to be marveled.

He is arguably the most influential sports owner of all time. His win at all costs mentality proved as successful as it was controversial. It was that same aggressive, take no prisoners approach that allowed him to rebuild a struggling New York Yankees ball club into the most valuable sports brand in the world.

George Steinbrenner was a boyhood hero of mine and will no doubt remain an inspiration to me for the rest of my life. I can attribute much of my ruthlessness to learning from “The Boss.” Many of the reasons I emulate the man are obvious – his obsession with winning, his brutal honesty, and, of course, his love for the game of baseball. But a great many characteristics of the man baseball is mourning were hidden from the limelight.

George Steinbrenner was a renaissance man. He was an athlete and an artist. He was a patriot who proudly served his country in the U.S. Air Force. He was a civically minded owner who was among the first to hire African-American coaches. He was a generous philanthropist who donated unsung fortunes to charities. He was a great deal more than most knew.

Today’s debate examines whether “The Boss” was good for baseball. To me that question is like asking, “Are stolen bases or homeruns good for baseball?”

Without Steinbrenner’s influence, baseball would be missing so very much of what excites so many. Without him the Hot Stove off-season would boast far less excitement, surprise, and intrigue. Without him there would be no universal villain in the baseball world, no one team that fans love to hate the way they do the Yankees. Without him the commercial success of baseball would suffer and the relevance of the sport would diminish along with it. Without George Steinbrenner the game would be incomplete.

It was Steinbrenner’s bank breaking player acquisitions that built the Evil Empire and gave baseball a Goliath to root against. Steinbrenner surrounded himself with winners, which came at a high cost. The legacy of his aggressive spending still keeps players living comfortably today. He got the guys that everybody wanted, but few could get. From Reggie Jackson to C.C. Sabathia, “The Boss” always got his man. On the surface this may monopolistic and thus bad for baseball, but it isn’t. It is simply competition. Competition that is good for baseball.

The players Steinbrenner was able to sign provoked other teams to offer big money to stay competitive. While this policy clearly favors the “haves” rather than the “have-nots” it also meant raising the bar on quality. Fans of teams that were willing to dish out the dough necessary to stay competitive were treated to a game full of stars. Fans of teams unwilling to part with their profits fell behind. It is not very egalitarian style, but it is very American.

Steinbrenner merely invested in his own company the way any good businessman would. His visionary success at marketing the television rights of Yankees’ games, and later launching the YES network to the airwaves, afforded him the ability to put money back into his ball club like no other owner. It became relatively easy for small market clubs to vilify him and hate the Yankees, but to blame Steinbrenner would be to punish him for his success.

Think about it, who does more damage to baseball, an owner than invests in bettering his ball club or an owner who hoards profits like Ebenezer Scrooge?

Even in creating controversy through his spending Steinbrenner still helped baseball. Whether praising the Yanks or criticizing them, people were no doubt talking about the Yankees during the Steinbrenner Era. The Bronx Bombers became the premier draw in baseball, and I doubt small market teams minded when their ticket sales exploded because the Yanks were in town. Similarly the spending of large clubs like the Yankees led to the creation of the luxury tax. Short of playing a game of monopoly, nowhere else were small teams getting money for nothing. Even in efforts to help solely the Yankees succeed Steinbrenner carried the sport with him.

Can you even imagine the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry without George Steinbrenner’s impact? This rivalry, arguably the greatest in all of sports, is the bread and butter of MLB. The epic matchups of these two division rivals attract huge television ratings and bring new fans to baseball. Without Steinbrenner at the helm, the Yankees would not have assembled the same teams that kept the Curse of the Bambino going for 86 years. Were it not for Steinbrenner’s dominate Yankees teams the rivalry would have surely lost much of its luster, likely becoming a historical footnote much as it was during the 1980s when the Yankees struggled. In fact, the 2004 World Series championship of the Boston Red Sox would have lost much of its luster had the Sox not had to topple a mighty Yankees team to win it.

Baseball is both a sport and a business, and I firmly believe that the success of baseball is tied to the success of the New York Yankees. I once sat through a lecture in my American Sports History course in college where the professor made a compelling case for the success of a sports industry being tied to its most marketable teams. There can be little doubt that during the Steinbrenner Era that the Yankees served as the flagship team of the business of baseball. The success of the Yankees helped the commercial success of MLB. In an age where the NFL is taking the lion’s share of the sports market, Old George was there keeping the pastime in the headlines. Each time he took his teams to unprecedented success, the fans – consumers – went a long for the ride.

George Steinbrenner personified the American spirit in baseball. He was a fierce competitor who did everything in his power to win. He may not have been liked by everyone, but he made the game better. Baseball will be forever in his debt for it.

Thank you, George. From one ruthless baseball man to another.

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