Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Death of a Statesman: The House of Steinbrenner

Most owners of professional sports franchises are fairly anonymous figures. They sign checks, they raise ticket prices and, if they’re lucky, at some point they raise a championship trophy just long enough to hand it over to their team’s coach or star player. George Steinbrenner was an exception. Like Jerry Jones of the NFL and Mark Cuban of the NBA after him, Steinbrenner wasn’t just a Major League Baseball team owner, he was a team icon, as intrinsic to the New York Yankees’ identity as the team’s famous pinstripe uniforms. From 1973 until roughly 2005, when he faded from view, people were free to loath Steinbrenner or to romanticize him, but they couldn’t ignore him. He was the face of the franchise – and happily so. Steinbrenner didn’t just own his team, he ruled over it, which is why when a deteriorating Steinbrenner handed over primary control to his son Hal, in 2008, it felt less like a business transaction than a political regime change. Sure, the Yankees stayed in the Steinbrenner family, just like Cuba is still under the direction of a Castro. But for all that might remain the same, the ceding of power by a notoriously impulsive, ironfisted overseer would leave the empire he built forever changed. Just like there can only be one Comandante, there could only be one Boss.

In The House of Steinbrenner, Barbara Kopple captures this familial transfer of sports authority with a historian’s sense of scope and a prophet’s sense of consequence. Two months removed from Steinbrenner’s death and less than two years since the Boss officially handed over the reins to his son Hal, these events might be too timely to fully appreciate in the present, but Kopple documents them as if anticipating their future significance, aware that whatever successes or failures the Yankees have over the next 30 years will be traced back to this point. The latest in ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series, The House of Steinbrenner is about the end of an era. In a less than two-year span, George yielded to his children, the “original” Yankee Stadium was replaced by “new” Yankee Stadium, hot dogs were joined by sushi in the Bronx and, across the street, one generation of construction workers tore down their fathers’ installations. Sports, with their seasonal schedules, are naturally full of beginnings and endings, but this was something different, something greater. At its best, Kopple’s film captures an organization and its fans in the midst of moving forward while consumed by all that they’re leaving behind.

The House of Steinbrenner is a well-made documentary, but cinephiles would expect nothing less from Kopple, the two-time Oscar winner whose last feature-length film, the 2006 hit Shut Up & Sing, remains one of the most surprisingly poignant films chronicling the effects of the George W. Bush administration (by way of the Dixie Chicks). The filmmaking here isn’t flashy, it’s confident, polished. Though not as profoundly edited as June 17, 1994, Kopple’s film mostly avoids voice-over and instead relies on pure observation and interviews with everyone from Hal Steinbrenner to a kid no older than 12 who thoughtfully articulates the historical significance of the Yankees’ relocation to a new stadium. Time and again, Kopple’s interviews reveal a passion for the Yankees and for “old” Yankee Stadium that, as often as not, brings people to tears. Sure, it’s all just a game, and it’s only a stadium. But it’s their game, their stadium, their team and thus their memories. Watching these interviews and feeling the fans’ emotional attachment, it’s easy to see why these fans so adored Steinbrenner in the best of times, because he loved winning as much as they did and wore his passion publically. Hal Steinbrenner, on the other hand? His passion for baseball is difficult to detect, if it even exists. It’s as if he’s trying to preserve someone else’s dream. There’s no question that he wants to succeed, but he’s a driven owner more than a die-hard. The most animated Hal gets in this movie is when he expresses his fondness for checklists. If George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees for the love of the game, Hal manages them today for a love of the bottom line.

Since the move to the Yankees’ new digs, that bottom line has gotten much bigger. Seats are more expensive, some exorbitant. Food, too. At one point in the film a Yankees fan chuckles (painfully) over having purchased four hotdogs and a few Cokes for $100. Meanwhile, in the outfield, some of the stadium’s cheap seats are inexpensive for a reason: they have significantly obstructed views – something newer ballparks are supposed to eliminate, not create. Warts and all, the truth is that George Steinbrenner probably would have built this stadium in the 1980s if he could have, but because fan nostalgia and other factors kept the team in their antiquated stadium for too long, the Boss goes down as the guy who put the fan first, while Hal is seen as the owner who would happily grab his fans by the ankles to shake the money out of their pockets. Whereas the “old” Yankees sought to make money by putting a quality product on the field, the “new” Yankees opened a significantly more expensive new stadium and then sought to make additional revenue from the old field itself, offering up pieces of the original Yankee Stadium – from infield dirt to lockers – for public purchase. (A mere $750 buys you a sign to the men’s room!) Kopple documents all of this without personal comment, finding more than enough fans willing to go into Michael Moore-esque tirades. It’s the right approach for capturing public sentiment but the wrong one for applying culpability, and whether that enhances the film’s accuracy or hurts it is up to you.

I suspect that the knowledgeable sports fan will deduce that the real evil here isn’t any "new" greed of the Yankees’ current ownership so much as the Yankees’ organizational need to do everything bigger and better than every other franchise in sports, an expectation that for years was honed by George. Still, if The House of Steinbrenner has a significant fault, it’s being too gracious to the Boss. Kopple’s film hardly ignores his faults – there are snippets about his itchy trigger finger with managers and his impatience with young talent. But somehow Steinbrenner comes off like an irritable but ultimately harmless cartoon character, a New York Foghorn Leghorn, and dismissing Steinbrenner’s less flattering characteristics as colorfulness seems off. Still, evidence of the “real” Steinbrenner lingers in the margins of this film, in the way Hal at one point calls him “George,” or in Hal’s anecdote about his father’s discomfort when put in a situation in which he was without complete control. As an encapsulation of one of the most notorious and yet most beloved owners in the history of sports, Kopple’s film is lacking a certain depth and nuance. But as a snapshot of the most successful franchise in American sports amidst a sea change, it’s noteworthy. And I suspect The House of Steinbrenner will become even more significant as time goes by, when the epic past isn’t so close to the present.

The House of Steinbrenner premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release. See the archive.


Sam Juliano said...

Talk about coincidence, just LAST NIGHT I was engaged in a discussion with my 59 year-old fanatical lifelong Yankee fan cousin, who was explaining to me how one must mortgage their house to attend a Yankee game. Mind you, I live maybe 15 mintes from the stadium (across the Hudson River from Manhattan and the Bronx, and I've attended over a hundred games there over the years, but in recent years, I've curtailed appearances in favor of television and radio, as the movies, opera and concerts took over my wallet) The price of the refreshments you speak about is insanity (over $100 for a few hot dogs and drinks) but it's all so true. This is why the player's salaries are what they are.

But I must say that despite the dictatorial demeanor of his celebrated ownership, Steinbrenner was an incredible man, charitable to the end, and commited to winning to the last penny.

What Yankee fan wouldn't appreciate this?

I remember well (I'm 56 now) the CBS years, when the team hit rock bottom, and the cry of fans everywhere, most who had forgotten the glory years (the team won five world championships starting in 1949) and the statistics that no team in any sport could match. The Billy Martin charade was as colorful and exciting as any continuing event in sports, and Steinbreener brought Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and others aces to bring the glory back to the Big Apple. Yes, my friend, he was absolutely a "team icon--as intrinsic to the New York Yankees' identity as the team's famous pinstripe uniform."

There are so many stories out there. One man now reveals that Steinbrenner befriended him in the stands many years ago, and just recently the Yankee owner - who by now had become a close friend - paid off the mortgage on his home. If he liked you, he'd go the distance. His kindness and generosity to the Munson family after the tragedy that took the life of the beloved catcher and team captain, is now lore, as his his resistence to be identified for many of his sizable donations.

George Steinbrenner was a superstar, and to Yankee fans the most significant of all those who brought fame and glory to the Big Apple.

His monument behind the center field fence is a shrine to a era and a style never to be seen again. I weep for this.

Jason Bellamy said...

Sam: What a terrific comment!

"But I must say that despite the dictatorial demeanor of his celebrated ownership, Steinbrenner was an incredible man, charitable to the end, and committed to winning to the last penny."

I think that's true. As I tried to express, I'm a little uncomfortable with the film's implication -- through the voice of the fans -- that if George were still around that the new Yankee Stadium experience would be the price of the old one. That's just not so. Here in Washington, DC, we haven't had a winning product to get behind, but we have had a winning team's prices -- so it goes with new (and mostly new) stadiums. (Unless you're in Pittsburgh -- home to not just one of the best ballparks in the country but certainly the best value of any major professional sports venue in the states; even if their on-field product sucks, and has for well over a decade now.)

His monument behind the center field fence is a shrine to a era and a style never to be seen again.

That's very true. It's been interesting to hear reactions to that "shrine." Some not that it's a little puzzling that Steinbrenner's plaque would be bigger than those of Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle put together. But Steinbrenner was an oversized personality -- so it's only fitting that his plaque should match.

Glad to see a New Yorker deliver some local passion here. Thank you.

Sam Juliano said...

Thanks so much Jason for those very kind words.

Though anything can happen over the next ten days or so, it doesn't appear that the Yankees have what it takes this year to give the Steinbrenner family another world championship. The starting pitching has faltered for one, and three AL teams have really come into their own. (Tampa Bay, Texas and Minnesota) It's pretty much a certainty that the Bronx Bombers will qualify as the AL wild card, but playoff success seems doubtful. Yankee fans have to learn to be appreciative for what they've accomplished, rather than this eternal greed for victory, which may be the downside of the Steinbrenner legacy.

You've mentioned yourself how elusive a winning tradition can be, in your broaching the D.C. area playoff failings.

James Yates said...

I cannot remember for the life of me where I read this (I'm 99.9 percent sure it was on ESPN.com), but I remember a fascinating look at the fact that Steinbrenner tried to buy the Cleveland Indians before he bought the Yankees. It's easy to visualize scores of "what-ifs," but baseball would have looked vastly different had the original purchase gone through.

Or maybe not...maybe the only real change would have been people muttering "friggin' Indians" instead of "friggin' Yankees."

Craig said...

People mutter "friggin' Indians" all the time, usually isolated to the Cleveland area.