Yesterday, ESPN published a revealing interview with Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner. In the course of the hour-long sit-down, we learned that Hal has always been interested in space travel, was never as athletically or musically gifted as his older brother, and never had more than a respectful relationship with his father. It seems like no small stretch that George Steinbrenner would be a distant father, especially to a son who seemed nothing like the boisterous business tycoon. Was he disappointed in his second-born son? We may never know, but I guess I have a new-found sense of pity for Hal.
Unfortunately, that pity doesn't bridge the gap for me when it comes to his track record as an owner. While providing a few hidden tidbits behind the Steinbrenner dynasty, he used the interview as an opportunity to tow the same company lines that we have heard over the last few years. Short of uttering the phrase "championship-caliber team," Hal defended his spending, pointing to the millions of dollars spent in 2014, but also hinting that their plan to get under the luxury tax threshold will be renewed once Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and CC Sabathia. All of this is par for the course, except for one very glaring comment that seems to revise the entire history of the franchise over the last 25 years.
In the defense of his father, he spoke about a time, supposedly in 1991, where Don Mattingly came to a very young Hal Steinbrenner and pleaded with him not to trade away the team's prospects. In his own words, he declared that "George listened and look what happened. 1996 happened. And those guys performed." It sounds like a great story, but did it ever actually happen?
You see, in 1990, George Steinbrenner was banned from baseball by commissioner Fay Vincent for paying a gambler to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. The two sides had been engaged in a lawsuit over a contribution to Winfield's foundation that the Yankees had contractually agreed to pay, but had not made good on. While there's no doubt that George had some sway in the goings on of the team he still owned, he was not allowed to actively take part in Yankees business. In 1991, it makes sense that Mattingly would go to Hal Steinbrenner to give a message to his father because the man wasn't allowed anywhere near the players at this point. However, to say that George "listened" to these pleads absolutely and completely ignores what we already know to be true.
It is universally acknowledged that Yankees general manager Gene Michael can be largely credited with the team keeping their prospects and allowing them to develop in the system. Under his tenure, they drafted Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, and signed Mariano Rivera. He was even credited for the team NOT trading some of their future stars.
There are many accounts of Michael going against Steinbrenner's wishes that would seemingly disagree with Hal's idea that George "listened." In noted Yankees scribe Peter Golenbock's book George: The Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built the Yankee Empire, the author recounts some of the more memorable moments of Steinbrenner's ownership during the 1990's. There are two instances that prove Hal's version of history to be completely incorrect:
Steinbrenner was reinstated from his ban in 1993, and in the pages of his book, Golenbock actually notes that on the day of his reinstatement, the Yankees front office wanted to have a party to celebrate the Boss's return. Steinbrenner, however, hated the idea and it was noted that, despite several years away from the game, nothing had changed in him. One of his first orders to Gene Michael was to trade away Bernie Williams.
One of the players Steinbrenner wanted to trade was twenty-one-year-old outfielder Bernie Williams. Williams, who was something of a flower child, played the guitar and sang and spoke in a very soft voice. Steinbrenner had looked into the boy's eyes and declared him "too soft."
Steinbrenner ordered Michael to call every single general manager in an effort to deal him. And that's exactly what Michael did. Michael, obeying Steinbrenner's orders to make calls, got in touch with every single general manager, but he never once mentioned Bernie Williams's name. He told Steinbrenner the truth: he had spoken to every general manager and not one was interested in Williams.
This does not seem like the actions of a man who has "listened" on the idea of not trading away prospects. In 1993, Bernie was just a 24-year-old kid who had yet to even play full time. After trade talks subsided, he was given a chance to play every day and he blossomed over the next few years to become the five-time All-Star he came to be.
The other instance was when Steinbrenner ordered Michael to trade Mariano Rivera for David Wells during the 1995 season. The 25-year-old rookie had already made his major league debut earlier in the year, but he had failed pretty hard. While rehabbing a shoulder injury after his demotion, Rivera managed to hit 95-96 mph on the radar. When Michael heard of the jump in velocity he ended all trade talks and the greatest closer of all time was allowed to stay on course with the Yankees.
If you want more evidence that the Boss never changed, consider the fact that he fired his coaching staff and general manager out of spite when the Yankees lost to the Seattle Mariners in the 1995 playoffs. This was the same man who fired people on a whim and meddled in the jobs of his employees. The same man who traded himself out of a championship team in the 1980's. All that happened in the pre-dynasty days had nothing to do with George Steinbrenner suddenly "listening" to those around him, it was actually all about those around him lying to him and finding ways to escape his overbearing hold on the team.
I have no idea why Hal Steinbrenner would have such a diluted sense of events that were happening back then. It's not like he was too young to remember correctly–he was 22 when Don Mattingly supposedly came to him. Maybe he has a very naive sense of what went on back then. He reported the message, his dad smiled and nodded, and Hal shut his ears and closed his eyes to everything else that went on for the next 10 years.
There's also the possibility that he's revising history in order to protect the legacy of the Steinbrenner family. This is the "Steinbrenner Face" in Monument Park all over again, this is renaming Legends Field as Steinbrenner Field, and this is pretending that the patriarchy of one of the most powerful sports dynasties in history was not actually a cantankerous gasbag whose methods at times were borderline criminal.
It would seem that the eye-opening Hal Steinbrenner interview was nothing more than another facade the Steinbrenner family likes to put up when it comes to talking about business matters. It makes me wonder who even had the idea for the interview in the first place–Wally Matthews of ESPN or Hal Steinbrenner himself. No matter how Hal wants to present history in respects to his own father, it can never be forgotten that the banning of George Steinbrenner may have been the single most important event that ever happened during his tenure as owner. Without it, who knows where this organization would be.