This Is George’s Day

Today the New York Yankees officially usher in a new era of baseball in the Bronx.  Today, the $1.5 billion palace known as Yankee Stadium formally opens its doors to the throngs of Yankee fans who will descend upon the new edifice located at E 161st St. and River Avenue.  Officially, today is known as Opening Day, but in reality is should be called “George’s Day.”

This Opening Day is all about the man who made the day possible.  It’s really all about George Steinbrenner.

The guy known as either affectionately or derisively as “the Boss,” has been the throttle behind the Yankees’ machine for more than three decades.  In 1973, with 17 investors at his side, Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees lock, stock and barrel for $10 million from the Columbia Broadcasting System.

At the time of the purchase the Yankees were going into their ninth year without a championship.

After buying the team Steinbrenner, as principal owner, said at the time, “I won’t be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all.”

Apparently, George was a better businessman than a prophet, because that’s all he would do in the coming years; be active.

Under Steinbrenner’s leadership the Yankees wasted no time in getting back into the World Series picture.  After posting an 80-82 record in 1973 the Yankees improved to 89-73, coming in second behind the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East the following year; missing the playoffs by 2 games.

It was during this period the Yankees temporarily closed the doors to Yankee Stadium to renovate and restructure the aging site.  For the next two seasons the Yankees played their games at Shea Stadium in Queens.

When the doors opened for the 1976 season there were obvious and notable differences in the structure.  Gone was the marbled wall with the double eagle seals rising up over Gate 4.  The outer walls, with its cathedral windows, surrounding the playing field had changed as well.  Inside the looks had been altered too.

The frieze or façade that ringed the upper decks of the old stadium had been reduced to a string of façade running along the wall in the outfield.  The steel pillars holding up the various seating levels around the stadium had been removed giving fans better sight lines to the field of play.

It was a beautiful park that served the Yankees, its fans, and the City of New York well up until it closed its doors for the final time on September 21, 2008

Also in ’76, and just three years after Steinbrenner took over the reins, the Yankees won the AL East Division, posting a 97-62 record.  They went on to defeat the Kansas City Royals in 5 games to propel themselves into the World Series for the first time in 12 seasons.  Unfortunately for the Bronx Bombers they ran into the defending World Series champion Cincinnati Reds who weren’t called the “big red machine” for nothing.  The Yankees were swept out of the Series 4-0.

That didn’t dampen Steinbrenner’s spirit; it only fueled his fire.  From that point forward the only successful season the Yankees could have using his standard of excellence was bringing home the World Series trophy.  Anything less was deemed “failure.”

The next two seasons, with a cast of characters with names like Billy, Thurman, Reggie, Sparky, Gator, Bucky and Goose, the Yankees became world champions for the 21st and 22nd times.   They beat their longtime World Series archrivals, the Los Angeles (old Brooklyn) Dodgers in doing so.  The same two teams went at it again in 1981 with the Dodgers finally conquering their antagonists in 6 games.

In the process of establishing their identity the turmoil surrounding the Yankees led the New York sportswriters to dub Steinbrenner and the Yankees “the Bronx Zoo.”  Steinbrenner was viewed as a tyrant who had an obvious bromance with manager Billy Martin.  During their love-hate relationship Martin was hired and fired by Steinbrenner five times between 1976 and 1988.

Along with the chaos came failure.  In his unquenchable desire to get his team to the World Series each and every year Steinbrenner spent oodles of money for players hoping to find the right combination of personnel to get it done.  Although the team went 692-531 (.566) between 1982 and 1989 they never placed better than second (1985-86).

In the 1990’s the Yankees changed tactics and began to develop their farm system.  Instead of buying players the Yankees brought players up through the system.  Under the watchful eye of General Manager Gene “Stick” Michael the Yankees developed players like Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada.  They surrounded these young players with veterans like Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius who blended in well and proved to be a championship combination.

Between outgoing manager Buck Showalter (1995) and the incoming new manager Joe Torre (1996-2007) the Yankees embarked on an odyssey of dynastic proportions.  From 1995 through 2007 the Yankees had an incredible 13-year run to the playoffs.  During that period the Yankees won four World Series titles, six AL championships, 10 AL East Division crowns and made 3 wild card appearances.

But, even when things have gone well there has disorder along the way.  The common denominator has always been Steinbrenner.  For better or worse since his first day as principal owner Steinbrenner has always done things his way.  It has gotten him in trouble with Major League Baseball, the law and the fans.  However, as with any landscape for every valley there is a hill.

Since their last World Series appearance the Yankees have been in a prolonged valley.  Steinbrenner, the organization, the fans and the city at large long for another championship banner.

After two years in the making the “new” Yankee Stadium opens its gates to a new generation of baseball fans.  Along with it comes the hope that in this new chapter the Yankees will find the same success they had at the old stadium.  It will be a tough act to follow though.  Twenty-six World Series championships is a standard that no team in professional sports has equaled.  Only time will tell if the new stadium will witness the same accomplishments.

However, the new stadium with all its new amenities of the present and future, plus its design to incorporate the past, is a great way to start.  The bridge of tradition is formally completed today.  It is time to make new memories, while remembering the old ones.  The Babe, Lou, Yogi, Joe D., Whitey and the Mick all played in the old stadium.  Today, Derek, Andy, Jorge, Robinson, Mariano and their teammates play in the new one.

Behind it all is George Steinbrenner.  It was his drive and his vision that enabled all of what the fans see and experience today to happen.  Steinbrenner has always been and always will be about winning.

“Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing. Breathing first, winning next,” he once said.

The old stadium may have been “the House that Ruth built,” but most assuredly the new Yankee Stadium is “the House that George built.”  In his 36 association with the New York Yankees Steinbrenner has turned the organization into the most recognizable franchise in sports.  It has gone from a $10 million investment to a multi-billion dollar empire.  The new stadium is the crown jewel of Steinbrenner’s tireless labors.

So for those of you lucky enough to have a ticket for today’s game enjoy it, savor it and remember it as something very, very special.  You’ll be able to tell your grandchildren “you were there” for Opening Day.

In reality, however, the day belongs to no one, but George.

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