A Difficult, Sad Week for the Yankee Family

The 2010 Major League Baseball All-Star break has unfortunately become a time of heartbreak for the New York Yankees and their fans.

In the span of just three days, the Yankees sadly lost two organizational icons, the likes of which, in each of his own roles, we may never see again — not only in baseball, but in all of sports.

On Sunday, the Yankees lost their voice. On Tuesday, their heart and soul.

One day before the entering the all-star break as defending world champions with Major League Baseball’s best record this season, the Yankees lost the famed voice of Yankee Stadium.

Robert Leo “Bob” Sheppard, the Richmond Hill, Queens native who lettered as a starting first baseman and starting quarterback at St. John’s University (where he got his start as an announcer), died 101 days before what would have been his 100th birthday.

Sheppard passed away at his home on Long Island, fittingly, in a town that ends in “win” (Baldwin). That town suffix was highly appropriate since Sheppard’s unique, classic style became synonymous with the great success seen by the Yankee organization and Yankee Stadium during the 57 consecutive years that Sheppard announced at baseball’s shrine from 1951-2007.

Simultaneously acting as the NFL’s New York Giants’ public address announcer from 1956-2006, Sheppard announced at over 4,500 MLB games, seeing the Yankees win 22 American League pennants and 13 World Series championships.

Yankee baseball was so ingrained into the fabric of Sheppard’s being (and vice versa) that during his first game at the then-brand new Giants Stadium, Sheppard mistakenly told the crowd, “Welcome to Yankee Stadium.”

Sheppard’s announcing became as much a part of the Yankees as the Bronx Bombers’ pinstripes and interlocking “NY.”

And somehow, all of those titles just wouldn’t have been the same without that famous legendary voice introducing the names of the players who made so much great baseball history over so many years.

(Keep in mind Yankee fans, this comes from a Met fan since the late 1970’s who has most of the time, like most Met fans, despised the Yankees, especially during their title years from 1996-98, and when I had to endure the Yankees winning their 26th title just as October 26th — my birthday — ended at midnight on October 27th, at of all places, Shea Stadium, one of the places I grew up).

I may have hated the Yankees, but I always respected them, and no one caused that dual feeling more than George M. Steinbrenner III, the real-life personification of sports capitalism, who passed away at the age of 80.

Though I didn’t always agree with Steinbrenner’s excessive overkill with pursuing other teams’ best players and trying to “buy championships,” I always recognized that The Boss was always playing within the rules. And, I’ve always pointed to MLB’s lack of instituting a salary cap as what has hurt baseball, and never Steinbrenner’s insatiable hunger to succeed.

Steinbrenner was like an overbearing, meddling parent with good intentions, and all of the different Yankees who played for him, were like his many sons who learned lessons the hard way, but who usually came out of that eventually, for the better.

There were the many things about the ways of the earlier, pre-reformed Steinbrenner which irked many Yankee and non-Yankee baseball fans alike over the years. Steinbrenner, to say the least, wasn’t exactly a patient owner, firing mangers 20 times (including Billy Martin on five separate occasions) in his first 23 years as the Yankee owner, while releasing general managers 11 times in 30 years, not to mention all of the angry words and run-ins that Steinbrenner shared with many toward whom the interfering boss wielded an early axe.

Too often, Steinbrenner came off as a far too intrusive, arrogant jerk who thought he knew it all better than anyone else ever could, despite leading the Yankees to World Series titles in 1977 and 1978.

There were also the rather silly policies (still instituted to this day), restricting facial hair (except for moustaches) and hair below the collar, which Steinbrenner modeled after the United States military and police and fire departments.

And, there was the personality-changing, rock bottom moment in 1990, when the Yankees finished in last place and Steinbrenner was banned from baseball for two years after paying small-time gambler Howie Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on former Yankee Dave Winfield, who sued Steinbrenner for reneging on his contractual commitment to pay $300,000 to Winfield’s charity foundation.

Steinbrenner however, had a big change of heart upon his reinstatement to baseball in 1993. He reinvented himself and learned to trust people like Gene Michael, while taking much more of a hands off approach that led to the Yankees keeping home grown talent rather than casting such players off for established stars, as before (not that the Yankees didn’t still spend a lot of Steinbrenner’s money to bring in stars, as well).

Steinbrenner’s internal adaptation paid off with another five World Series championships during his reign –- the four mentioned earlier (between 1996 and 2000), and the latest, last year, under the direction of Steinbrenner’s sons Hank and Hal, who inherited the empire their father had built after Steinbrenner’s health had already begun to fail.

Maybe some of Steinbrenner’s earlier methods were ridiculous and crazy at times, hence the “Bronx Zoo” moniker given to the turmoil between Steinbrenner and his players, managers, GM’s, and coaches. But, there was certainly a method to the madness.

It was all about winning for The Boss, who once said “Breathing is first, winning is second.”

And, nobody won better in baseball during Steinbrenner’s years as an owner. It was his true respect for the already great Yankee history that came before him, and he his desire to build upon that history that made him not only a legendary New York story, but one of the great American success stories of all time.

A man who was born on the fourth of July in 1930, in small-town Rocky River, Ohio, went from a late 1950’s Cleveland shipping magnate to owning the American Basketball League’s Cleveland Pipers in the early 1960’s. Putting his sports aspirations temporarily on hold, Steinbrenner was involved with financing Broadway plays in the late 1960’s, before getting his opportunity with the Yankees in 1973.

With a personal investment of $168,000 as part of a group of investors who purchased the Yankees from CBS for a net total of $8.8 million, Steinbrenner eventually built the Yankees into the current $1.6 billion global brand it is today, while continuing to make the Yankees the winningest franchise in sports history.

In doing so, Steinbrenner became a pioneer as well, launching the YES Network, the Yankees’ highly successful television network, in 2002, creating even more revenue for his already-thriving organization.

The MLB Network, NFL Network, and the New York Mets’ network, SNY, have since followed.

And, despite his earlier controlling behavior as an owner, Steinbrenner never took himself too seriously, whether poking fun at himself on television commercials, in a staged comedic moment with Martin at a press conference, or approving each script in the parody of himself played by “Seinfeld” creator Larry David.

Yes, there was plenty of craziness and many called him tough to play or work for, but it was all in the name of what should be the ultimate goal of any team.

We’ll see now, if this statement literally becomes etched in stone, but Steinbrenner once remarked that all he would want on his tombstone are the words, “He never stopped trying.”

Regardless of whether or not fans in other cities think Steinbrenner was good or bad for baseball, that type of competitiveness is difficult not to respect.

With flags at half staff, a moment of silence and video tribute in Steinbrenner’s honor took place prior to MLB’s all-star game on Monday night, and during the game, Yankee participants wore black arm bands in recognition of both Steinbrenner and Sheppard.

The younger Steinbrenner might have considered chewing out Yankee and American League manager Joe Girardi for having so much all-star talent and still not finding a way to score a single earned run; for losing to Met representative on the National League team, David Wright; and especially, for not batting his own Alex Rodriguez off the bench as a potential tying run in the bottom of the ninth inning, in the N.L.’s 3-1 win over the A.L., thereby costing the Yankees home field advantage in the World Series, should they return to the Fall Classic this year.

Then again, Steinbrenner, probably watching the game from his big owner’s box in the sky, might have simply relished that the news of his departure earlier in the day upstaged the N.L.’s first all-star game win since 1996.

And, Sheppard, next to Steinbrenner in heaven’s announcer booth, probably got a chuckle from that before telling Steinbrenner in that classic voice, “Don’t worry, even without home field… we can win… number 28… George Steinbrenner… number 28.”

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