We’re not sure anything sums up the George Steinbrenner that we remember better than that 2003 Visa commercial he filmed with Derek Jeter after criticizing his shortstop’s commitment in light of a report that he’d been out late partying during the previous season. Here’s why.
We attended our first Yankees game in July of 1991, one year after Steinbrenner had been banned by Fay Vincent for his dealings with Howard Spira. By this point, the Billy Martin firings, and the contributions to Richard Nixon’s campaign, and the other Billy Martin firings had already taken place — as had two World Series titles and four American League pennants under his reign.
Steinbrenner returned in 1993, and we’re part of a generation of fans that remembers him more for the seventeen or so years that followed than for the ones that truly built his reputation as the Boss. The Steinbrenner we remember had settled a bit, not hiring and firing managers and general managers on a whim anymore. He still showed signs of his old self — not many owners would call one of their pitchers a “fat pussy toad” — but, hey, he was just saying what we fans were thinking. You tell him, George!
As the years went on, he became increasingly, well, likable. He kissed and made up with Yogi Berra. He eventually stopped talking about moving the team to New Jersey, before coming to his senses (or, perhaps more accurately, before getting what he wanted) with a new stadium in New York. And, of course, he spent his money and won more championships. That does more than just about anything to endear an owner to a fan base.
Which brings us back to that Visa commercial, starring the Steinbrenner that we’ll remember: still willing to throw the tabloids a bone — imagine what Jeter would have to do these days to earn a talking-to from ownership — but really more of a caricature of an earlier Steinbrenner. He was still the Boss, to be sure — butting heads with Don Zimmer, or signing Gary Sheffield — but he’d lost some of his bluster, and that was just fine.
In the years that followed, his health would decline and he’d cede more and more control to his baseball people and to his sons. Doing so allowed him something of a victory lap: Emotional ovations whenever he appeared at the Stadium, multiple shout-outs from the stage following last year’s World Series win — even one final tribute this year, when the Yankees displayed all seven Steinbrenner-era championship trophies on his 80th birthday. The many sides of George Steinbrenner, Yankees owner, will be remembered over the next few days, but that’s the one he’d appreciate the most: that of a winner.