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Legacy of a raging lion in the ballpark

THE Yankees are again world champions, and it seems a shame that the man widely credited with having returned the club to its historic glory has been diminished by age and infirmity.

George Steinbrenner is 79, seldom seen and, more surprisingly, heard. But now comes Bill Madden's riveting biography, "Steinbrenner," to remind us that in this instance silence is blessedly welcome.

Madden, a longtime baseball writer for The Daily News in New York, subtitles his book "The Last Lion of Baseball." But the portrait that emerges is of a man of precious little nobility. The Yankees have won seven World Series on Steinbrenner's watch, triumphs that came not always as a result of his stewardship, but despite it.

Steinbrenner was running an Ohio shipbuilding company in 1972 when he and a group of partners bought the game's most storied franchise from CBS for a paltry US$10 million. It had fallen on hard times - losing too many games and fans - and Steinbrenner set about making it a winner.

His timing was propitious. The age of free agency was about to begin, and Steinbrenner would try to buy the best players on the market.

Indeed, if he had limited his involvement to writing checks, there is every reason to believe the Yankees might have fared even better; the two periods of their greatest success under Steinbrenner - 1977-78 and 1996-2000 - followed the two times he was banned from the game, when other people were in charge of the team's future. (He was banned first time for making illegal contributions to President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign, and again for paying off a gambler who had gathered dirt on Dave Winfield, a star player who had fallen out of favor.)

Madden covered the team and Steinbrenner at the height of his power, and embarked on his biography with the backing of the Steinbrenner family.

He also had access to the many hours of audiotapes recorded by the first of Steinbrenner's many team presidents, Gabe Paul. The Paul tapes are a biographer's dream: a wise and seasoned baseball man's daily venting about the endless miseries of life with "the Boss."

What we see, almost from the beginning of Steinbrenner's tenure, is a man of overweening self-importance and callousness, with a breathtaking absence of empathy. The book reads like the literary equivalent of passing a traffic accident; it is all but impossible to turn away. Steinbrenner could be charming and generous. But these qualities do little to mitigate what is, finally, a devastating account.

Madden writes that while Steinbrenner enjoyed rich kid privileges, he suffered mightily under the emotional weight of his father who apparently never had a kind word. This did not instill in Steinbrenner a capacity for kindness.

His treatment of those who worked for him was capricious and cruel and conducted with the bully's telltale streak of cowardice. When manager Yogi Berra lit into Steinbrenner for criticizing him and his coaches, the owner, ducking a confrontation, dispatched the general manager to fire him, adding this great Yankee catcher to the interminable list of managers, coaches and executives he fired with the impulsiveness of a three-year-old.

The portrait softens on an aging and fading Steinbrenner, and pity frequently takes the place of outrage. Madden goes too easy, for instance, on Steinbrenner's campaign to squeeze the city for a new ballpark. This, however, does not lessen the impact of the blow to Steinbrenner's legacy. In the end, the man who felt it necessary to apologize to New York when the Yankees lost a World Series understood almost nothing about a game whose subtleties seemed beyond his comprehension.

But then, this wasn't about baseball. It was, ultimately, all about him. There may be no I in "team." In the world of George Steinbrenner, though, there was, above all else, an M and an E.


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