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Boss' death casts pall over All-Star Game
Derek Jeter wanted to visit The Boss this week.
He planned to fly home from California to Tampa after Tuesday’s All-Star Game. He hadn’t seen George Steinbrenner since Opening Day, when the Yankees’ owner added Ring No. 7 to his collection. So it was time for another visit, another chance for the friends to catch up, another opportunity to reminisce about controversies endured and championships won.
THE BOSS: 1930-2010 Iconic Yankees owner George Steinbrenner died Tuesday at age 80. Get complete coverage right here.
But Jeter awoke Tuesday to a phone backlogged with messages. The meeting he so anticipated wasn’t going to happen.
George Steinbrenner was gone.
“Shocked,” Jeter said.
Shocked. In fact, The Captain used the word twice in describing his reaction. That said a lot about how one Yankees icon viewed the other.
Outsiders probably weren’t as surprised. Steinbrenner was 80. His health had declined considerably in recent years. He was rarely seen in public. But to Jeter, he remained the same force he always had been. Even in his weakened state, Steinbrenner exerted great influence on the lives of those who tried to win for him.
How they remember him will be different than how you remember him.
To the end, The Boss stood for the same things that he had throughout a 37-year stewardship of the most storied franchise in American sports.
Rings. Loyalty. Professionalism. Big spending (of course). Haughtiness, in an extreme and understandable way. Must-win expectations, above all else.
And that is probably why Jeter was shocked. George Steinbrenner seemed immortal, and championship trophies were only part of the reason.
“I have a great relationship with The Boss,” Jeter said, still using the present tense. “I’ve known him since I was 18 years old. Obviously, there’s a respect factor, because he’s the owner and I work for him. But we were more friends than anything. I’d visit him in the offseason, because we both live in Tampa.
“We’d have bets on Ohio State-Michigan football games. I’ve been in trouble a couple times. I filmed commercials with him dancing. … It’s tough, because he’s more than just an owner to me. He’s a friend of mine. He will be deeply missed.”
Jeter was one of four longtime Steinbrenner employees who spoke about him during a Tuesday news conference at Angel Stadium. Andy Pettitte was there. Alex Rodriguez, too. Joe Girardi added the unique perspective of a man who played, coached and managed under The Boss.
There were light moments. There were touching moments. And it didn’t seem that any of the stories had been polished up out of respect for a man who had died fewer than 24 hours before. They appreciated the man while he was alive, in a way that non-Yankees employees could not.
We saw the controversies. They lived everything else.
A-Rod, often criticized for his lack of candor, related a heartfelt story about receiving a handwritten note in 2004 bearing the initials GMS.
“It was hand-delivered by a clubhouse kid,” Rodriguez said. “I got a little nervous. I still have this note. In the end, he basically said, ‘I’M COUNTING ON YOU!’ Capital letters. Exclamation point. To this day, I hold this dear. And I think we’re still playing for him, not to let him down.”
Said Pettitte: “George used to hand me Bible verses before some of my playoff starts. He was tough, but he was always there to support you also. I don’t think enough is said about the support he would give you. … He expected a lot. He demanded a lot. He raised, I believe, the level of not only the Yankees, but he raised the bar around baseball.”
Doctoral theses could be written on whether Steinbrenner was a great influence on baseball. No one spent more. To beat him, you had to spend smarter, manage better or work harder. As Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig pointed out earlier Tuesday, the game is considerably healthier — on and off the field — than before The Boss got involved.
But Girardi didn’t talk about payrolls or revenues or competitive balance. He instead smiled while recalling a man who teased him about the Northwestern University football team — long inferior, of course, to The Boss’ Buckeyes.
“He had a way of making some light moments around tough times,” Girardi said. “I enjoyed it. I never really felt that his expectations were overbearing. He just wanted what all of us wanted — to win.”
And he did, with great regularity, right until the end. The Yankees won the last World Series during Steinbrenner’s lifetime. It’s enough to make you think that Johnny Damon’s pivotal stolen bases were meant to be.
“The final time I saw him was when we had a chance to present him with a championship ring,” Jeter said. “It was a great experience. It was fun. I got a chance to tease him, because he had an Ohio State ring on. I told him to take it off and replace it with the Yankee ring.
“Those are the memories you remember — those intimate moments. We had a lot of one-on-one moments. And that was the last time I saw him.”
The heartfelt news conference ended a little after 1:30 p.m. local time. There was still an All-Star Game to play. By 2 p.m., Jeter was in the right-handed batter’s box at Angel Stadium, thwacking his way through another round of batting practice.
For the first time in 18 years, George Steinbrenner’s perpetual need to win wasn’t guiding every swing. Jeter may have been back to work, but it won’t be the same now that The Boss is gone.
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