Do we really have to say nice things about George Steinbrenner just because he’s…you know…dead? Really? OK, here goes:

About a dozen years ago or so, maybe more, Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, was talking with Steinbrenner and happened to mention that I, an Iowa columnist at the time, was a great Yankees fan. Big George immediately had his public relations staff send me a package of “stuff”–the most impressive of which was a lightweight Yankee warm-up jacket.

As it happened I was not a Yankee fan, great or otherwise. (Harkin had confused me with a colleague, a political cartoonist, who was.) I was (and am) in fact a Yankee hater. With the possible exceptions of the Ohio State Buckeyes, the Yanks are my least favorite team.

But it was a nice jacket, with that really cool interlocking “NY” logo on it, so I ran a contest in my column offering it to the person who presented the best reason for wanting it.

I got a lot of entries, most of them pathetic in the manner of middle-aged men yearning to get close to an athletic glory they could only dream of. I finally awarded the jacket to a 12-year-old kid. His parents later sent me a picture of him at a game wearing it, along with a smile that threatened to break his face. So it turned out better than most of my contests and I suppose I have Steinbrenner to thank for it.

But that’s it.

Let’s be clear on what Steinbrenner was: a mean-spirited bully who was used to getting his way by any means, fair or foul. His act of “generosity” to me–a millionaire’s equivalent of giving a quarter to a street mendicant–was merely the kind of thing bullies do from time to time. It’s a control mechanism.

In real life, his flaws–the illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon (a soulmate), the repeated character assassinations visited upon his enemies, his attitude toward handshake deals (best to count your fingers afterward)–far outweighed any public virtue he might have possessed.

He was given credit for being a great businessman and he did, after all, turn an $8 million investment ($100,000 of it his own money) into a $3 billion sports empire. But he did a lot of that by threatening to move the Yanks to New Jersey, thereby extorting a $1 billion subsidy for a new stadium in the Bronx.

And that’s really why his life and death are worth paying attention to. He was a symbol of pretty much everything that is wrong with sports in our society today, from its deification of athletes to its extorting of public money from cities in order to enrich team owners, to its sacrifice of sportsmanship at the altar of winning.

I have another Steinbrenner story, passed along by a University of Michigan professor who dabbles in sports history.

I don’t recall whether he was a staff member at the prep school attended by Steinbrenner’s son Hal or his classmate. In any case, one day he found himself in the third-base coaching box at a baseball game, with the young Steinbrenner at the plate in a crucial situation.

The pitcher threw strike one, then strike two, prompting the future professor to yell words of encouragement: “Two strikes, Hal. Choke up a little.”

And from the stands 25 feet in back of third base came the voice of the elder Steinbrenner: “He already has.” Daddy dearest.

Yankee fans grew to love him, because–surprise, surprise–he won. Fans are dumb.

But a culture hero he ain’t. And that’s as true dead as it was alive.

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Donald Kaul

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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