The baseball gods have been rewarding my patience over and over again for the past several years. Some presents have satisfied trivial hopes, others have been monumental. I got to see two Phillies win back-to-back Home Run Derbies. Two Phillies won back-to-back MVPs. The Phillies made the playoffs for three straight years and won their first world championship in my lifetime. An unbelievable five Phillies took the field for the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis. And now after 14 years of waiting, I finally see the National League win the Midsummer Classic this year. As an introverted, hometown Phillies fan with a lower class background, I was born to be an underdog, and the NL underdogs finally pulled one out.
Those same baseball gods opened their gates this morning to welcome home a true giant of the game, George Steinbrenner. Despite the hostility I feel toward the New York Yankees, particularly after watching my team lose the World Series to them last year, I must pay grudging respect for a man whose death at the age of 80 dealt a huge blow to the game of baseball.
Grudging respect is what I conveyed to the TV screen when I watched the last All-Star Game ever played at the old Yankee Stadium, and when I saw the last-ever game played there two months later. Grudging respect was what I gave to Yankee captain Derek Jeter in a column I wrote about the second World Baseball Classic, when he led a determined United States team with his words and his bat.
I have to try hard to fathom the loss that the Yankee organization and fans are feeling because for everything there is to love about Steinbrenner, there are an equal number of things to hate. I don't subscribe to the notion that winning is everything, and I despise the practice of trying to win a World Series by filling your roster with over-priced free agents. I question Steinbrenner's morality due to many of the decisions that he made during his four decades as the owner of the Yankees.
However, I'm certain that when Steinbrenner took the job in the early 1970s, he knew it would be his last. All die-hard baseball fans understand the great tradition of baseball and the significant place it holds in the fabric of American history. Much of that tradition can be associated with the Yankees, and Steinbrenner put his heart and soul into returning the team to prominence and carrying on the torch.
The Boss also softened up in his final 15 years as owner. I actually rooted for the Yankees in the World Series during their dynasty years in the latter half of the 1990s, and those Yankees were built the right way with a significant number of their contributors coming from their farm system.
Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly can't make this claim, but today's Yankee players admired "Mr. Steinbrenner" for the care he showed to them, the fans and the organization. Until his health declined, he was a visible, accessible owner who wanted nothing more than his players to win and take pride in donning the New York pinstripes. The legacy of the Yankees was one he understood, cherished and helped continue into the new millennium.
I still can't wait for the day when the New York Yankees are no longer the best team in baseball, and millions of fans agree with me, but I can't ignore the lost presence of such a giant to the team and to the sport. We can hate the Yankees all we want, but we must all admit that we would love to have the vision and success of George Steinbrenner.