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Steinbrenner was perfect for New York

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Mark Kriegel

Mark Kriegel is the national columnist for FOXSports.com. He is the author of two New York Times best sellers, Namath: A Biography and Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, which Sports Illustrated called "the best sports biography of the year."

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ANAHEIM, Calif.

Never mind that that you couldn't stand him. He was too tabloid? Too New York? That's your problem, isn't it? The blue-blazered bully was merely illuminating the destination.

I recall some spectacular media hordes back in the day: the ferocity with which men fought for a glimpse of John Gotti as he left the courthouse in lower Manhattan, Imelda Marcos — the dictator's wife as penitent — shuffling on her knees up the aisle in St. Patrick's Cathedral. But none was more electric than the cantankerous coterie that regularly followed George Steinbrenner as he made his way from the owner's box to that sorry excuse for a parking lot.

And woe to the reporter who missed a couple of syllables. One's journalistic apprenticeship came with a full warning: George Steinbrenner was a target of opportunity. Whatever you do, don't screw it up.

No one knew how to make an exit like George. But now I recall a more recent and less inspired departure. This was after the second game of last year's World Series, at the new Yankee Stadium, a monument to victory and commerce that will be identified forever with Steinbrenner the way the original was identified with Babe Ruth.

The stairwell had become a makeshift holding pen as men with walkie-talkies commandeered the field-level rotunda. By the time they let us through, Steinbrenner could be seen, but just barely, sitting behind blackened windows, waiting for the walkie-talkie men to give the signal. Baseball's boss of bosses had been reduced to a faint silhouette. He deserved better than this, a cheap getaway in a Chrysler mini-van.

Now, as the baseball world convenes in a suburban stadium whose identifying flourish is a Flintstone-like rock pile, there's a chance to make it right. The players and the agents, members of the media and those who toil for the commissioner's glory, gather to mourn a man who made them what they are.

I hope they know what they're doing. Sports is a cynical trade, most of it based on the business of nostalgia. Every spectacle is suspect; but remembrance is an art.

Through all the crap I covered, one moment stands out as sublime. That would be the morning after Mickey Mantle's death, when Yankee Stadium's Monument Park became the destination for an impromptu pilgrimage, for fathers and sons who felt obliged to pay their respects. I remember the shuffling procession, the church-like silence maintained by children in hats and tee-shirts. I remember Bob Sheppard's voice, and those sad, soft notes from Eddie Layton's organ as he played "Ave Maria."

But now, with Layton and Sheppard both dead, you wonder what baseball can do to mark the passing of George Steinbrenner. Let me suggest Bud Selig calling for a meeting of the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee to consider the cause for Steinbrenner's timely induction. If Mantle represented what the Yankees once were, or what your dad liked to recall, Steinbrenner embodied what they became.

As he changed the Yankees, he changed American sports. I can't think of anybody in any sport — player, coach, manager, commissioner, owner, union boss — who had more influence, intended or otherwise, over the games people pay to see.

If Yankee Pride became an industry under Steinbrenner, then so did Yankee-hating. The contradiction made for great commerce.

Of course, Steinbrenner was, above all else, an exercise in contradiction. He was from Tampa by way of Cleveland, but remained the most coveted of all guests at Elaine's on 2nd Avenue. He was a baseball man with the rah-rah sensibilities of a high school football coach, a bully who believed in salvation (ask Darryl Strawberry), capable of compassion as easily as treachery (ask Dave Winfield). He wanted to be a tough guy, like his idol, General Patton, but was given to weeping in public. This privileged product of prep schools seemed to take his cue from a labor leader (Marvin Miller, who, it's worth mentioning, also deserves immediate induction into the Hall), conspiring to make rich men of mere ballplayers. A president once said "the business of America is business." Given Steinbrenner's star-spangled excesses, it only seems right that he was born on the Fourth of July.

We didn't have that many conversations, but I wince with embarrassment recalling our first. It was maybe '91 and I asked him about the gargantuan aspect of "the New York stage." What an amateur.

Still, he seized on my cliché with great gusto. "The stage," he said. "Now that I understand."

But only now, as I pack for Angel Stadium of Anaheim, preparing to enter the sweltering horde, as all of baseball assembles to bid him farewell, do I finally get it. George Steinbrenner knew how to make an exit.

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