It’s the major series in which the man distinguishes himself. When the situation demands a leader, he is not reluctant to step forward. In his own vernacular, George Steinbrenner is a big guy.
Big guys don’t hide in the shadows. They’re out front. And that’s where Steinbrenner, the Prod of the Yankees, stood while his team was succumbing to the Toronto Blue Jays in the most significant series of the 1985 American League season.
Other owners might be tempted to hole up in a private box or surround themselves with cronies at such a time. Steinbrenner could have contented himself with firing a telephone operator or throwing a baseball at the television set in his office. But that’s not the man’s style. He had to take charge.
Recall for a moment Steinbrenner’s performance in the Yankees’ last major confrontation. It was the fall of 1981 and the Yankees were in Los Angeles for another World Series appearance against the Dodgers.
After the Dodgers won their third consecutive game to take a 3-2 lead, Steinbrenner convened a news conference in his suite to announce he had upheld the honor of New York and the Yankees by routing two boorish and besotted Dodger fans in the hotel elevator. He offered a cut lip and a bandaged hand for evidence.
And he wasn’t finished. No, sir. As his team caved in during the sixth game at Yankee Stadium, he sprang into action, dictating a public apology to the people of New York for the Yankees’ play. The populace was suitably warmed through the long winter by the owner’s concern.
It isn’t Steinbrenner’s fault the Yankees haven’t made it back to the World Series. His managers just haven’t done the job, which is why he has had six of them since, two of whom resemble Billy Martin. His baseball people have recommended players who didn’t belong in pinstripes, who didn’t appreciate the Yankee tradition, which he revived. Those slick-talking agents convinced him their clients would respond to the special pressures of New York and, instead, they’ve spit out the bit.
Yet, despite all the obstacles, he rebuilt the Yankees into a contender again this season. And, all things considered, Martin had done a pretty decent job with the team, although he had gone soft on the players and given them a day off now and then just when they appeared ready to overhaul the Blue Jays. Then came the weekend, the chance for the Yankees to leapfrog over the pretenders into their rightful place atop the American League East standings.
Imagine the shock to Steinbrenner’s system. He was fine Thursday night because a Toronto blunder opened the door to a Yankee victory and his team was only 1 1/2 games back. But it was the Yankees who unraveled Friday night, and he admonished his players to one beat reporter. Then the bullpen cracked on Saturday night, and the man could stand no more.
That’s when he walked down the hallway to the pressbox and, with the game still in progress, made several suggestions to the reporters in time for them to be included in Sunday’s late editions. The comments were read by his employees, which was just as he intended.
First, he blamed himself “as much as anybody,” contending the Yankees had been “out-ownered” in the series as well as “out-front-officed, outmanaged and outplayed.” But he didn’t dwell long on the problems away from the field. He singled out some specific people for constructive criticism and, strangely enough, those people were players.
The most prominent players he mentioned were Dave Winfield, Ken Griffey and Don Baylor. Say this for George. The man knows how to light a fire. Just look at what the trio accomplished Sunday: Griffey had a double and a two-run homer, Winfield had two singles, scored a run and drove in another and Baylor, in his one at bat, doubled and scored a run.
Unfortunately, there was a negative side to this production. The Yankees did not score their first of five runs until the eighth inning, by which time the Blue Jays held an 8-0 lead.
Ed Whitson, another man placed on the spot by the owner, was battered from the mound in the third inning, and the defense on the left side, Griffey included, was shoddy. In fact, for the better part of the afternoon, it appeared the franchise’s only point of pride would be a suitable rendition of the Canadian national anthem, which had been booed and butchered earlier in the series. Robert Merrill, the old pro from the Met, came through in the clutch and the crowd of 54,699 actually applauded.
Once the game began, there was enough embarrassment for everyone. Doyle Alexander, a whipping boy of Steinbrenner’s as recently as three seasons ago, stifled the Yankees on one hit through six innings and lasted into the eighth. He received credit for the 8-5 victory, his 16th this season and his 40th in 60 decisions with the Blue Jays. Pitching for the Yankees in 1982-83, Alexander appeared in 24 games. The club lost 21 of them. He was released in June of 1983 and collected more than $1 million for his pain.
Alexander and the Blue Jays’ bullpen were particularly rough on Don Mattingly Sunday. The Yankees’ most dangerous hitter reached base only once in five at-bats, and that was on George Bell’s error in left field. For the series, Mattingly was 4 for 16, with two runs batted in.
“I’m embarrassed the way I played,” he said. “Well, not really embarrassed because I played as hard as I could. But I hoped for better results.”
He also had hoped for more support from the owner, with whom he had his own difficulties in contract negotiations this spring. “Sure, it makes you feel uneasy,” Mattingly said. “It makes you feel uneasy because fans are booing Ken Griffey, who’s done a great job for us all year. And they’re doing it because of him (Steinbrenner).
“We got a ballclub fighting for first place and we got an owner belittling players who have helped us get where we are. To me, that’s out of control.”
To Steinbrenner, that’s leadership. Big guys make their presence felt. It’s something the underachievers, who make up 99% of the human race, never will understand.