It has become sort of a running joke: Whenever the Yankees are doing badly, someone, usually a fan, is sure to ask, “What would happen if George was alive?’’
Well, if George – and if you need the last name, you’re reading the wrong column – If George was alive . . . . the Yankees 2017 World Championship dreams would probably be dead right now.
The fact that they are not is due to the differences between The Boss and his younger son.
George M. Steinbrenner III, rescuer of the franchise from the doldrums of the CBS era, restorer of the team to its former glory and Hall of Fame caliber meddler, was a lot of things to a lot of people.
He could motivate, in a questionable, threatening sort of way. He was willing to spend money, which always seems to please the fans. He was reactive in a way that feels emotionally satisfying in the moment, and sometimes worked, but sometimes backfired badly. There is no question that he brought the Yankees back to the level of respect and even awe they had enjoyed between 1920 and 1964.
But one thing The Boss was never good at was relieving the pressure on his team or on his manager when they needed it most.
Under duress, Steinbrenner’s instinct was to jam his foot down on the accelerator, not back it off.
That is why Yankee fans should be thankful today that Steinbrenner no longer controlled the team in those fraught hours after last Friday’s Game 2 loss, a direct result of Joe Girardi’s hesitance to call for a review of the controversial sixth-inning hit by pitch of Lonnie Chisenhall.
In the hours following the Yankees rousing ALDS Game 5 victory over the Cleveland Indians Wedneday night, the victory that not only sent the Yankees into their first ALCS in five years but also rendered Girardi’s mistake a footnote in Yankee history (and probably earned him a new contract), I texted a member of the Yankees organization:
“Can you imagine if The Boss was around after the Game 2 loss?’’
The person’s reply was simple and telling: “OMG.’’
Nothing more needed to be said.
If there ever was a time when Yankee fans should be thankful the principal owner of their team is named Harold Z. and not George M., this is that time.
Had George Steinbrenner still held the reins to this franchise six days ago, there’s no telling what he would have done other than what we know, that he would have gone ballistic.
He would have reamed Girardi out, publicly and privately. He would have called out some of his players, especially Chad Green and David Robertson and undoubtedly, Aaron Judge. He would have threatened all sorts of retribution if the Yankees didn’t rally to win the series.
He might even have tried to pull a Ted Turner and don a uniform, fixing to take over the managerial duties at least for the night.
The one thing he would not have done is reduce the pressure on his team, and that is the one thing Girardi did brilliantly.
And he was only able to do that because Hal Steinbrenner stepped back and allowed him to.
Girardi’s Game 2 blunder was by his own admission egregious. But what was remarkable, for this franchise anyway, is that not a peep about it was heard from ownership, from Hal Steinbrenner or team president Randy Levine, hardly a picture of restraint himself, down through general manager Brian Cashman.
Whatever was said behind the scenes stayed behind the scenes where it belonged.
And Girardi, to his credit, took ownership of the mistake the next morning after admittedly trying to float a ludicrous excuse in the desperate moments after the game.
But Girardi’s taking the blame upon himself took the pressure off his players, who were moved by the honesty and humanity of the moment and really seemed to rally around the manager, which is often an empty cliché.
More than anyone, it appears Girardi was able to calm his team and convince them that the series could be still won, a game at a time.
Hard to imagine that being possible with The Boss applying the pressure.
There have been many obvious heroes in this Yankees run – Didi Gregorius, of course, and Luis Severino, and Brett Gardner, Robertson and Aroldis Chapman – and a couple of unsung heroes, such as Cashman, who not only had the guts to convince Hal Steinbrenner at last year’s All-Star break that it was time for a partial rebuild, but also the foresight to sign the likes of Gregorius and Aaron Hicks, who have blossomed into important players, and to trade for Robertson, Tommy Kahnle and Todd Frazier at this year’s deadline.
A lot of people shook their heads at Gregorius’ mistake-filled first month as a Yankee – this was the guy who was going to replace Derek Jeter? – but he has developed into a dangerous hitter as well as an outstanding shortstop; his double play to end the fifth inning on Wednesday was every bit as vital to the Yankees win as his two home runs off Corey Kluber.
Would The Boss have been patient enough with Gregorius to allow him to find his sea legs in New York?
Offensively, Frazier hasn’t been much for the Yankees but he has played an outstanding third base and his hustle resulted in two key runs for his team in the ALDS. Plus, his enthusiasm has been noticeable in a clubhouse that still seems kind of staid at times.
Would The Boss have been willing to overlook a .222 batting average in 66 games as a Yankee in exchange for the other qualities Frazier brings to the team?
What would he have said after Sonny Gray’s poor Game 1 performance, even knowing that the right-hander was likely to be part of his team for the next two seasons? How would he have dealt with Masahiro Tanaka’s early struggles knowing he had a looming opt-out clause in his contract? What would he have been saying about Jacoby Ellsbury – and by extension, Cashman – for the first three years of his admittedly bad seven-year, $153 million contract?
It is quite possible The Boss’ meddling could have derailed this team even before it got to the post-season.
And there is little doubt that after the Yankees went down 0-2 to Cleveland, in large part because of a brain cramp by the manager, that he would have increased the pressure to the point that there may not even have been a Game 4, let alone a Game 5, which means no ALCS or chance at yet another World Championship.
So the next time you’re tempted to ask, “What would happen if The Boss were still around?,’’ think back to those pressure-filled days following Game 2 of the 2017 ALDS.
And be thankful that for that year at least, someone else was calling the shots.