Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Goodbye, George: My enemy; my friend

I hated George Steinbrenner. Loathed the man.

Now, cut me some slack. At the time, I was a just a kid, one who lived and died every day with the Kansas City Royals.

Boys in Blue win, I was happy for another 24 hours. They lose, I'd probably be in a skunky mood. And that was just the regular season.

My father taught me an early lesson about work ethic watching those Royals games. He said few athletes played the game with the effort, the fire of those Kansas City clubs of the 1970s and early '80s.

"Watch Hal McRae break up a double-play," he'd tell me. "See how George Brett runs out every ground ball, even if it's 8-to-nothin' in the seventh inning."

It took Frank White a few years to really contribute with the stick, but he was forever slick with the leather at second base, eventually winning eight Gold Gloves. First baseman John Mayberry was the strong, silent type, while the shortest of shortstops, Freddie Patek, at 5-foot-5, was the classic over-achiever. Blazing-fast Willie Wilson was always looking to stretch a bloop single into a double, a double into a triple (he led the American League five times) or a three-bagger to an inside-the-park home run. Center fielder Amos Otis could run, too, but even when he'd lost a step, his professionalism, his baseball savvy, his knowledge of the hitters gained over time meant he was almost always in the right position -- and getting an early break -- when the ball left the bat. And a Royals outfielder almost never missed the cutoff man.

The Royals didn't always have the most talent on the hill, but it was a gritty pitching staff, with a starting rotation anchored by small-college products Dennis Leonard (one of three big-leaguers all-time from Iona) and lefty Paul Splittorff (one of two from tiny Morningside in Iowa).

And then there was my hero, closer Mark Littell, a 6-foot-3 Cape Girardeau, Mo., kid with a buffalo gun for a right arm. The stadium loudspeakers blared John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" every time Littell came in from the bullpen. I sang along like the game, maybe my very life, depended on it. On him.

I'd never before wanted to be that guy the way that I, as a 10- or 12-year-old boy, wanted to grow up to be Mark Littell. Not since, either.

Those Royals were a team built the hard way. From the minor league system up. Via key trades that brought in players (like Otis and McRae) who fit and excelled in Kansas City as they'd never fit anywhere else. By signing other clubs' castoffs in free-agency.

And every year from 1976-78, those scrappy Royals who "played the game the right way" were beaten in the ALCS by George Steinbrenner's New York Yankees, the best damned team entirely too much money could buy. That first year, the dagger was driven through my heart by a Chris Chambliss walk-off blast in the finale, Game 5. And he touched up my hero to do it.

My father silently watched me walk right out of the house, into the pitch dark on a school night, all of 10 years old. He knew I wouldn't go far. That I'd be back when I'd come to grips with the loss. And that it would take awhile. I was left alone outside for an hour or more, wearing my blue plastic stadium souvenir Royals helmet and swinging my wooden Louisville Slugger with a vengeance at invisible pitches, vowing I'd someday help take down those damned Yankees.

A year later, K.C. led 3-2 entering the ninth of Game 5, at home, and the combined talents of Leonard, Larry Gura and Littell couldn't stave off a three-run Yankee rally that stole my heart again. New York won in just four games in '78, though Brett slugged three homers.

Rubbing salt in my wounds was the fact that Steinbrenner was a winner who never seemed to be happy about it. He was always meddling in the day-to-day management of the clubhouse and lineup, not just front-office business. In eulogizing the sports and business icon, who died today at the age of 80, the Blood-Horse says Steinbrenner was "dominating," but they mean "domineering." Let's face it, "The Boss" could come off as a real jerk, second-guessing his managers and berating players in the media and in private, at least once (according to Yankee great lefty Sparky Lyle) telling a player that he "looked like a monkey trying to (hump) a football out there."

So, not all that likable a guy. And I obliged by disliking him with every fiber of my being. Especially since his boys kept beating mine.

After a year out of the playoffs in '79, Kansas City finally exacted some revenge on the Yanks and The Boss in 1980. I was riding shotgun in the family sedan on our way to Grandma's -- hoping to no avail that we'd get there before the last out of the ballgame, instead listening to Denny Matthews and Fred White on Royals Radio -- when Brett blasted a Rich Gossage heater into the third deck of the House that Ruth Built, giving K.C. the winning margin and a World Series berth. (The Royals subsequently lost to Philadelphia, much to my chagrin.)

That might have begun easing my animosity toward George Steinbrenner. Finally beating an arch rival who's had your number has a way of releasing some competitive endorphins; of easing your mind and heart a bit about all the frustrations of the past.

But I can tell you when I really started going easy on George Steinbrenner. Even liking the guy.

It's when I stopped long enough to take note that he bred and raced horses.

Not that you can't be both a horseman and a jackass. (Hopefully I'm not proving that.) But it let me see another side of George Steinbrenner; a passion of his that I shared. The passion. Racehorses.

It's sort of like we were ... on the same team.

Steinbrenner had achieved success in the race biz before I bothered to notice.

His Kinsman Stud Farm near Ocala, Fla., bred a lot of winners to run in the Kinsman Stable colors. Steve's Friend was Steinbrenner's first Kentucky Derby horse, in 1977, prepping for the Run for the Roses with a Hollywood Derby-G1 victory, only to be among the also-rans behind eventual Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. I thought The Boss was finally gonna win those roses in 2005, when Bellamy Road looked like a world-beater in the Wood Memorial-G1 and was well-positioned with a quarter to go at Churchill, but weakened to finish seventh, emerged gimpy, and only raced once after.

Kinsman raced or shared in partnership a number of other top horses, my personal favorite being Concerto, who has become a pretty decent Florida-based sire.

Steinbrenner also owned Florida Downs, which became Tampa Bay Downs, and held an interest in Chicago-area Balmoral Park. He was active in horsemen's groups, as well, serving as president and a board member of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association.

It's been said that the fastest way to make a small fortune in the racehorse business is to start with a large one. Shipping and sports magnate George Steinbrenner had plenty of options for how to blow or grow his money, and chose to invest a significant portion of his fortune in the thoroughbred industry. We can't thank him enough for that.

I still can't bring myself to root for his Yankees, but I'll confess I said a prayer and shed a tear for my horseman "friend" George Steinbrenner today. And this game will miss him dearly.


  1. Wow! You sure nailed that one. Our Dads must have been cut from the same cloth. Mine was an avid KC Athletics fan and I used to watch him as he spent many a hot summer night listening to the static on the radio and every once in a while you could hear the announcer. But then came the Royals and the above mentioned group of heroes to many of us mid-western boys. I totally understand the ill feelings of George. He was awful. He made the Kaufmans look like deity. I especially disliked the way he treated his managers, one in particular, Billy Martin. I was fortunate enough to attend several of those classic play off games and, with my Dad, one series game against the Phillies (and Pete Rose).
    Just a side note: The Royal fans loved baseball and respected visitors and even applauded a good play from the opposition. But the only two people that I ever witnessed getting a good booing on a regular basis were George Steinbrenner and Pete Rose. And I guess they deserved it.
    Thank you for the well written walk down memory lane of a wonderful, wonderful time.


I welcome comments, including criticism and debate. But jerks and the vulgar will not be tolerated.