The image that springs to mind immediately of George Steinbrenner, who passed away this morning of a heart attack at the age of 80, an image I tried but failed to find in Google's archives, is of the white-haired Yankees owner, circa the early aughts, behind the glass of a luxury box at his Stadium. He gives a triumphant, snarling smile, toward a camera some distance away which he nevertheless seems to know is there, and pumps one heavily ringed fist before a handler escorts him away.
This image captures everything that stood out for me, a Red Sox fan, about the hyper-competitive hand at the helm of the New York Yankees for the last three decades. He knew where the cameras were at his Stadium, and probably every hot dog vendor, luxury box seat, tunnel and corridor besides. He paid this attention to detail with his team, too, watching and criticizing the every move of players and managers that donned his pinstripes. The ring, of course, requires no explanation, but it is notable that the owner wore his World Series rings seemingly for all occasions -- it is difficult to imagine John Henry doing the same. And at the heart of it all was a nearly pathological need to win, a desire so apparent and exaggerated it would have been cartoonish if he hadn't been able to back it up in payroll and personnel.
Steinbrenner, for better or for worse, was behind the image the Yankees still carry: of a coldly professional, rigidly organized, wealthy, winning team. As a Red Sox fan, I can't pretend now that he's passed that I've never railed against all of that. I can't say whether he was, at heart, a good man or not -- that's for his family and those close to him to conclude. And he's been gone from the Stadium for years now, fading from view as the face of the franchise.
Still, for better or for worse, the last 30 years will be remembered as the Steinbrenner Era in baseball. His passing marks the passing, for better or for worse, of the champion of a set of values that colored the course of the game while his fingerprints were on it, and will for years to come. Whether you loved or hated him, he was important, and now he is gone.