By George, he's back

Steinbrenner lashes out at the Yankees, just like old times. And this time, he's actually got a point.

Published June 13, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Fifty or 40, even 20 years ago it was an article of faith that it was a good thing for baseball for the New York Yankees to win, or at least win enough to be competitive. Now, it is just as strong an article of faith that it's a bad thing; as long as baseball is dominated by its biggest market team, the game can never truly regain the stature it had in times past. The ratings from the recent World Series prove this, or so the argument goes; the fans are never going to come back to the World Series in old-timey numbers till they're sure the Yankees aren't going to keep winning it all.

This is double talk, the residue of attitudes coming from the commissioner's office as the baseball owners get ready to push their revenue-salary cap plans on the players and public.

First of all, the Yankees dominated the game in every one of the so-called golden eras, and that was always considered to be one of the things that made them golden. Second, back when baseball pretty much had the top of the sports pages to itself, the Yankees were generally in the World Series and ratings were just fine.

Third, the World Series is never again going to have those kind of ratings because baseball, once it enters the postseason, becomes a largely localized sport with less national interest than, say, football or basketball, sports that thrive mostly because of national postseason TV money. (In many NFL and NBA cities, just a tiny percentage of local fans even see the regular season games in person.) That, of course, is the subject for another column at another time, but the point is that if the Yankees and Braves didn't send World Series ratings through the roof, then the A's and Cardinals or the Cubs and Indians or the Phillies and Twins isn't going to do it, either.

Nonetheless, the sports press, even a growing segment of the New York sports press, continues to push the premise that it's bad, bad for baseball for the Yankees to win, and good, good, for Minnesota or the Phillies. As a result, no one takes George Steinbrenner's whining very seriously anymore, except to note the fact that the old George, who lashed out at his players in Tuesday's New York Times, is back and whining again. I really don't think the old George, the classic George of the '80's, will ever be back. He's older, more tired-looking, and infinitely wiser than back in the Billy-Reggie days, and when he complains out loud I think Yankees fans should listen. Well, for a while anyway.

He's certainly right this time, though the New York sports press doesn't seem to have caught on to it yet: The Yankees are playing like crap. They're only two games behind the Red Sox (going into Tuesday's games), which is often where they are this time of year, and overall the pitching hasn't been bad, but the team has not been hitting, not a lick, and they've lurched from one uninspired performance to the next.

There are those who say, what the heck, what does an owner want? The Yankees have won four times in five years, aren't they entitled to tail off a bit? Isn't it likely they'll straighten out by September? All of which I answer by saying that no team should ever be allowed to get by without its best effort and that I'm happy Steinbrenner has spoken up for the paying customers who are not getting their money's worth. He has every right -- every obligation -- to speak up, and as long as this team continues to play like it has, I hope he continues to do so.

Amazingly, Steinbrenner did not criticize Mike Mussina. After all the talk of how the Yankees were "buying" another World Series by obtaining the former Orioles star, Mussina has been a major letdown, another talented player who looks great in the second division but melts down in situations where the games mean something. Instead, Steinbrenner criticized the hitters, and he was absolutely right. In an age when hitting records are broken almost weekly, the Yankees, over the last year and a half, have lost the patience at the plate and the edge that once defined them.

Part of the problem is age and stubbornness: The Paul O'Neill problem needed to be dealt with in the off-season, and now it has resounded with a sickening "pok" -- which is, if you don't watch ballgames in person, the sound a weakly hit ground ball makes as it skips into a happy shortstop's glove to begin a double play. O'Neill has become a deadly rally-killer, wiping out so many runners on DPs that he often has Yankees fans wishing that in crucial situations he would simply strike out. Which might help if he didn't then turn and bait the umps, which then take it out on the rest of the batting order.

The fiction that O'Neill can still start, let alone bat in the same spot in the order once occupied by Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth, is a delusion, but perhaps not a more serious one right now than the Yankees' cheerful belief that superstar Derek Jeter will pull them out of their tailspin. I'm sorry to say this because he is mine and my daughter's favorite player, but he is not a superstar.

As I write this, Jeter is hitting .289; he has not hit with significant power for nearly a season and a half (just 15 home runs last year and only five this year); and he has deteriorated into one of the most uninspired defensive shortstops in the league, ranking high in errors and low in range factor. What is so upsetting -- or what would be upsetting if Jeter's performance wasn't given a nightly free pass from the New York press -- is that he is supposed to be at his peak right now. The truth is that he was a much better player two years ago than now.

I'm glad Steinbrenner has spoken up, because I think the game is more interesting, not less, when the Yankees win and threaten to win it all, and right now, payroll or no, I would make them no better than the sixth best team in the league, or at least sixth best when the A's finally get untracked. All George is guilty of right now is getting there before the press.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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Baseball George Steinbrenner