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June 9 - Stein-mellow?

If you live in or around New York, as I do, then you are accustomed to hearing two phrases with numbing
frequency. One is, “Hey, lard-butt, move it!”, which is usually shouted by beefy truck drivers or nuns. The
other is, “George Steinbrenner.”

Like the air, The Boss seems to be everywhere. In TV commercials. In tabloids newspapers. In his
manager’s face.

I have been thinking about Steinbrenner because of the Yankees' sour start this season, the owner's
role in trying to sweeten it and his history as “Herr Steinbrenner,” the caricature with the Kaiser helmet
created by
Daily News cartoonist Bill Gallo. The Boss’ image seems to have been transformed lately
from overbearing bully to disappointed patriarch, not entirely without reason.

Think back. When Steinbrenner first arrived on the New York scene in the 1970s, ballplayers were
expected to be machines, mild slumps were a sign of unreliability and dipping batting averages were
threats to the Yankee legacy. The man changed managers like he changed shirts, ushering out Billy
Martin five times and even the saintly Yogi Berra.

Stories about Steinbrenner abounded. He fired secretaries if phones weren’t answered by the third ring;
commanded general managers to remain in hotel rooms all day for messages that never came;
ordered a parking attendant to mind his town car in the broiling Florida sun when his name was left off
the VIP parking list.

But look at him lately: on the Yankees TV network, interviewed by Michael Kay and looking nervous and
unsure as he fiddled with his eyeglasses, or showing uncommon restraint as his collection of all-stars
tumbled in the standings. The New York newspapers, who actually assign writers to cover Steinbrenner
when he attends games at Yankee Stadium (the Steinbrenner Watch), also appear to have been won
over by this new version of the Boss.

In the last few years, Joe Torre - a beloved, low-key, skillful manager of difficult personalities - is seen
as privileged for having been giving the opportunity to manage the Yankees by Steinbrenner and,
thereby, assure himself of election to the Hall of Fame. The players, who in the past deserved sympathy
for the brow-beating Steinbrenner gave them for their (alleged) underachievement, now are not meeting
the Boss’ expectations and, like any failing employee in any industry, are to be warned of the severe
consequences. A man deserves a championship for his $200 million, doesn’t he?

I am not sure which Steinbrenner I know best. I do remember traveling from Cleveland to New York to
cover a day game at Yankee Stadium. Steinbrenner was on my flight and we knew each other a little.
Bumping into me at the baggage carousel at LaGuardia, he asked if I was going to the Stadium. I was.
He offered me a ride in his chauffeured Lincoln.

We arrived at the Big Ballpark, the car was steered into Steinbrenner’s reserved space, and the owner,
seeing me struggle with my suitcase and my typewriter, asked if he could help. And that’s how it came
that on a sunny day in July, 1976, George Steinbrenner, owner of the most famous franchise in the
history of sports, toted my Olivetti Underwood for me as we strolled past the security guards, as their
jaws dropped.

The next day, he was roaring at his team again.

The new kinder, gentler Steinbrenner shows patience, understanding, and even some humility. That’s
nice, but the old Steinbrenner sure was more interesting.