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Remembering George Steinbrenner’s return to Yankees baseball

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The Boss’s extended exile was the ultimate blessing for a Yankees team in desperate need of a rebuild.

George Steinbrenner Photo by: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

A quarter of a century ago today, The Boss was back in the Bronx. After George Steinbrenner hired his own personal deep throat in convicted gambler Howard Spira to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, commissioner Fay Vincent banned the animated owner from the Yankees’ day-to-day activities in July of 1990.

Steinbrenner coughed up $40,000 to Spira in attempt to expose Winfield for inappropriate use of funds generated by the Winfield Foundation, which never revealed any wrongdoing on Winfield’s part. Instead, Steinbrenner received a lifetime ban from the team, but remained the franchise owner.

The relationship between Steinbrenner and Winfield never seemed to have a chance. From Steinbrenner’s “Mr. May” comments to Winfield’s “cost of living” contract increases, the duo never saw eye-to-eye, to say the least. By the time Steinbrenner’s punishments were dished out, Winfield had been shipped out to California to join the Angels. He would later elect to enter the Hall of Fame wearing a Padres hat, despite playing more games for the Yanks.

The circus atmosphere around Steinbrenner’s offices matched the state of his team, who were reeling through a lost season. At the time the hammer came down on Steinbrenner, the Yankees were a miserable 39-61, despite being in the middle of a four-game winning streak.

The lifetime ban wouldn’t last, but Steinbrenner’s hiatus from team activities helped lift the franchise out of the darkest era of their illustrious history. The Boss is widely beloved across Yankees Universe, but his insatiable desire to produce an instant winner often led to destructive long-term results. Trading away young talent like Al Leiter, Willie McGee, Fred McGriff, and Jay Buhner during the frustrating 1980s didn’t help Steinbrenner’s impatient stigma. Something needed to change for the Yankees to return to prominence, but it just wasn’t going to happen with Steinbrenner’s usual tactics.

With Steinbrenner temporarily out of the picture, Gene Michael and the Yankees went to work. In the three years that Steinbrenner was away from team activities, the team drafted Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada (again), developed players like Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera (not Felix Fermin) and traded for Paul O’Neill. That’s a decent list of players who won a game or two in pinstripes.

The team still struggled through years of failure while Steinbrenner was serving his time, but anybody who stuck around for the teams of the late ‘90s would agree that the long road to success was well worth it. Building a team through young talent proved to be the way to turn the franchise around, which would have been tough to pitch if Steinbrenner was still calling the shots.

Steinbrenner wanted to win more than anybody. That is not debatable. His methods of doing so just weren’t productive. His plaque in Monument Park is a nod to his investment in the team, but his absence during a crucial time in the franchise’s existence was actually much needed. Michael, not Steinbrenner, was the man for the job when a rebuild was needed. Given what happened in the year’s after Steinbrenner’s return, I would say he was appreciative of Michael’s work.