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Après George le Déluge

As the tyrant fades away and his team fades with him, it has now become all too apparent that the Boss was really the straw that stirred the drink.

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Illustration by Lyndon Hayes  

For the Yankees, it might have been a celebration, or it might have been a wake.

Sinatra was singing “New York, New York.” Elaine was smiling. It was yet another vintage night at her Upper East Side saloon, the kind that mixes moneymen, writers, stars, and neighborhood characters. This party had an unusually jockish vibe: It was the night before Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, the last to be held at Yankee Stadium—the one and only original Yankee Stadium, anyway, where the Babe swatted and Jeter became a star. The one where George Steinbrenner became a maniacal legend.

George had been a regular at Elaine’s, too. He’d come in after big games needing to calm down, chatting with Elaine before heading to his suite at the Regency Hotel. But George hadn’t been in for a drink in years. A mysterious illness had turned him puffy-faced and sapped his strength. The next night, before the start of the All-Star Game, Steinbrenner would make a rare appearance at the stadium, riding in a golf cart to home plate, black sunglasses hiding his eyes but unable to hide his tears as the sold-out crowd roared for him.

The party was a quieter tribute—it was held at Elaine’s not simply because the place is a legendary New York joint but because it was George’s joint. There were plenty of folks from other teams, but it was a thoroughly Yankees affair, right down to the goody bags filled with pin-striped cookies. Joe Girardi, the Yankees’ current manager, brought his wife; Lou Piniella, one of Steinbrenner’s many former managers, mingled and laughed, too, and swapped stories with Madison Avenue admen and tabloid baseball writers.

But as much as it was a salute to the patriarch, it was also something of a coming-out party for the next generation. For years, George emptily proclaimed it was time to “let the young elephants into the tent.” Age and poor health had finally compelled him to do it. So Hal Steinbrenner, 39, recently installed as the team’s executive vice-president, made the rounds with a new stature. Jenny Steinbrenner, 48, spent much of the night at a table in the back, alongside Elaine; Jenny was married to George Steinbrenner’s heir apparent, Steve Swindal, until the couple divorced last year. Jessica Steinbrenner, in her mid-forties, was there, too; her second husband, Felix Lopez, supervises the Yankees’ facilities in Tampa.

Hal seemed ill at ease. “He didn’t really know these people,” said one partygoer and baseball lifer. “Hal hasn’t been around baseball.” Heads kept turning curiously every time the barroom door swung open. Surely, his brother, Hank, the best-known, most-quoted, most-George-like of the Steinbrenner kids, would come barreling in any minute. Hank was the son everyone expected to keep the dynasty going. He’d have to be here for the glossiest event of his brand-new tenure as senior vice-president of the Yankees.

Yet as the party petered out, not long after midnight, Hank Steinbrenner was a no-show. He skipped the All-Star Game, too. Where was Hank? “That’s not a question you’d ask with the crowd that was there,” says a family friend—meaning, most significantly, not around Hank’s kid brother.

On the field, the 2008 Yankees are desperately trying to stave off an unhappy ending. For the first time in thirteen years, the team is likely to fail to make baseball’s playoffs. But this season’s subtext has always been more interesting, and in many ways more dramatic, than whether Joba Chamberlain should be a starter or a relief pitcher. The most compelling plotline of this season has been about what happens to the Yankees, the New York institution, after George Steinbrenner dies. As the Boss drifts away, his family is like a tense party in search of a host.

In his prime he was an imperious bully. But George Steinbrenner was also a bully with a vision, and his impatience and his money revived a moribund franchise and propelled the team to six world championships. Steinbrenner did a lot of mean-spirited and dumb things, but his sense of urgency permeated the organization. And not coincidentally, Steinbrenner took the Yankees from a threadbare castoff valued at $10 million to a thriving behemoth worth more than a billion dollars. The TV network he created, called YES, has become a bonanza, and next year, another Steinbrenner dream will come true—a state-of-the-art, cash-minting, $1.3 billion new stadium.

The official line is that George Steinbrenner remains deeply involved in decision-making. But he had become a less forceful presence even before he got sick. And now that he’s almost completely offstage, his children have been forced into running the show. The two sons, Hank and Hal, are divided by their twelve years and their very different personalities. More threatening to the long-term success of the team, however, is the heirs’ ambivalence about actually taking charge of the franchise. So a question that for 30 years had a laughably simple answer—who’s running the Yankees?— is instead more complicated than it was seven months ago, at the start of the season. What’s clear is that life after George is going to be very different for the Yankees—and, in some ways, far more difficult.


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