It looks like George Steinbrenner is acting like George Steinbrenner again, and the news couldn't be better for the baseball world.
Steinbrenner, the mercurial New York Yankees owner, has been pecking at manager Joe Torre all year, though both men have said the tiff that led to this weekend's rumors that Torre might be fired turned out to be over a "misunderstanding."
Still, there's no doubt that "the Boss" has returned to the meddlesome, querulous ways that he seemed to set aside just about the time the Yankees not coincidentally started to win pennants again in the mid-'90s, and isn't that wonderful?
It's not stretching things too much to say that everything Major League Baseball has been trying to do for the last half-decade or so has been aimed at weakening the New York Yankees.
It's an admirable goal, but not one that baseball cops to. Commissioner Bud Selig and the other owners talk about the need for salary caps and luxury taxes. They moan about the lack of competitive balance. Selig likes to say there are teams whose fans know in spring training that they have no chance of rooting the boys to a championship, as if this were a bad thing, and as if it hadn't been true since day one of the National League, when the Cincinnati Reds began their march to a 9-56 record. The current Detroit Tigers would have to lose 57 straight games starting Tuesday to match that winning percentage.
But anyway, here's how to translate all of that talk, which nearly led to a strike last year: The Yankees are too rich, and therefore they win too much, and they must be reined in.
It might be that baseball could have avoided all that tsoris and just waited for George to go back to being George.
So far this year he's feuded with Torre publicly over the use of pitchers Jose Contreras and Jeff Weaver, and he named Derek Jeter captain of the Yankees, which would seem to be a manager's decision, without so much as mentioning it to Torre.
The week before last Steinbrenner went out and got designated hitter Ruben Sierra, possibly Torre's least favorite player and a man who managed to turn a world of talent into a forgettable career, though he'll be remembered by baseball-quote aficionados for uttering an immortal attempt at an insult of the Yankees when Torre sent him packing after his last stint in the Bronx in 1996. "All they care about," he huffed, "is winning."
And then there was the Zimmer ban. Yankees coach Don Zimmer, Torre's right-hand man, ripped Steinbrenner in a radio interview for basking in the team's success but then blaming Torre when times got tough. New York Daily News columnist Bob Raissman reported that Steinbrenner responded by banishing Zimmer from broadcasts on YES, the Yanks' cable network. The camera wasn't to focus on him and the announcers weren't to mention him.
This went on for only a few days until broadcaster Jim Kaat raised a stink, but it was the kind of wonderfully impetuous, borderline whack-job Steinbrenner nonsense that led to the Yankees' going pennantless from 1982 through 1995, the longest such stretch since before Babe Ruth arrived.
As anyone who follows baseball and thinks a little bit knows, you don't have to be the richest team to win, but then again it doesn't hurt to have money if you know what to do with it. The Yankees have won since the mid-'90s because they've been a well-run organization, one in which Steinbrenner put good people in place and more or less let them do their work. The team's great gobs of cash have provided a safety net -- New York can afford to overpay for players without mortgaging the future -- but those gobs were there in the '80s and early '90s too, when the Yankees were poorly run, and there were no championships.
Major League Baseball refuses to acknowledge that the Yankees are so rich only because baseball rules prevent other teams from moving into the New York area and further dividing the giant pot of media dollars that is now artificially reserved for the Yankees and Mets. Letting a few more teams set up shop in an area that's about half again as populous as it was 75 years ago when it supported three major league teams would solve the Yankees-too-rich problem faster than you can say, "What time is the New Jersey Expos game on?"
Don't hold your breath.
But if Steinbrenner is unhappy with a team that is, let's not forget, in first place despite a slew of major injuries and a ghastly early-season slump by Jason Giambi, things are looking up. If the old George is really back, the Yankees might solve that Yankees-win-too-much problem all by themselves.
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