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Archive for Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Commentary: ‘The Boss’ hardly a fitting nickname

Steinbrenner’s waning power, visibility evident as Yankees’ spring training begins

February 13, 2007

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The plan, at least, calls for us to see less of George Steinbrenner this spring training. No more daily check-ins about the Yankees' latest Grapefruit League setback, or Joe Torre's future, or Alex Rodriguez's state of mind.

"He won't be highly visible, but he'll certainly be attending (spring training)," Howard Rubenstein, Steinbrenner's hard-working spokesman, said late last week. "Right now, we're not planning any interviews."

In truth, team officials have been strategizing how to keep The Boss as invisible as possible, to avoid awkward scenes and potentially explosive words to be reported back to you the fans.

Here's hoping they succeed.

It's time to wean ourselves off our Steinbrenner addiction. To acknowledge who this man is, now, and the role he actually plays in the Yankees' hierarchy.

This won't necessarily be easy, and certainly, the media won't ignore a rip job of Torre by the Yankees' principal owner, for instance. But Steinbrenner and his words now have to be placed in their proper context: We can call him The Boss, for old time's sake, but that's really not his role anymore.

He is the Yankees' patriarch, still, yet his health is in obvious decline, widely believed to be the result of something more serious than mere aging. The tales of Steinbrenner's fluctuations in memory and emotions are too numerous to wave off; some have occurred in the presence of the media.

His hours at the Legends Field office have become increasingly erratic; sometimes he'll leave at 9 p.m., while he recently came to work on a Saturday, when no one else was there.

He no longer drives himself, instead relying on longtime Yankees employee John Sibayan to chauffeur him everywhere.

It's Steinbrenner's prerogative not to share his personal health information with us. It's also our responsibility to not pretend that these are the Yankees, and the Steinbrenner, of even five years ago.

Heck, even Rubenstein, who has helped to cut off virtually all Steinbrenner interviews in the last few years, declined to throw out his "He's lifting weights" line when asked about his client's health, instead dodging the question.

No doubt, Steinbrenner hasn't completely checked out; as one Tampa insider put it, the owner has "good days and bad days."

Last year, as you remember, he wanted to fire Torre following the Yankees' stunning playoff loss to the Tigers. And while General Manager Brian Cashman won the argument to keep Torre, Rubenstein released a rare statement that actually sounded like The Boss' words and intentions, publicly informing his manger that he wanted to see "enthusiasm, a fighting spirit and a team that works together" in 2007.

And this space will always appreciate Steinbrenner's courageous fight against last year's World Baseball Classic. Bud Selig, not a fan of dissent, ordered all of his owners to support the cause, and Steinbrenner ignored that order. Just because the WBC turned out successful, and justified the injury risks, doesn't mean that Steinbrenner was wrong to raise his objections.

But between moments like that is a whole lot of nothing, of staked-out reporters getting two-word responses and awkward physical movements from him at Yankee Stadium, of his wishes (for an Alfonso Soriano trade last July, for instance) politely ignored.

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