Meet the New Boss. Same as the Old Boss?
George Steinbrenner's management style is neatly summed up in a series of headlines from The Onion:
- After New York failed to win the 2002 World Series: "Yankees Ensure 2003 Pennant by Signing Every Player in Baseball."
- After signing the hero of the 2004 World Series to be the Yanks' center fielder: "Steinbrenner Names Johnny Damon as New Yankee Scapegoat."
- After the team's first-round playoff elimination by Detroit in 2006: "George Steinbrenner Fires Tigers."
The Boss, as the Yankees' principal owner often calls himself, is widely regarded as a meddlesome, manipulative bully with spirit, but no soul. Indeed, back in the late '80s and early '90s, he reveled in the nickname Attila the Hun.
Steinbrenner is a confessed admirer of that self-styled Scourge of God. For those without a scorecard, the fifth century paragon of barbarity murdered his brother to establish uncontested rule over the Huns.
Not surprisingly, his preferred guide to success has long been Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, a 1985 collection of management metaphors constructed by the author Wess Roberts. For years, Steinbrenner kept a dog-eared copy on his office desk at Yankee Stadium.
Among his favorite passages:
- If people speak evil of you, erroneously attribute misdeeds to you, and will not serve a greater purpose, you must do away with those adversaries or you must behave in a manner that will encourage them to amend their judgments."
- "Never appoint acting chieftains. Put the most capable Hun in charge, and give him both responsibility and authority. Then hold him accountable."
And, perhaps most tellingly:
- "You must recognize and accept that your greatness will be made possible through extremes of personality-the very extremes that sometimes make for campfire satire and legendary stories."
These days, with the 78-year-old Yankees potentate's physical health and mental capacity in decline, his oldest son Hank has become the mouthpiece of the empire. Hank, 51, had served a brief apprenticeship in the front office in 1986.
Back then, the shy, mild-mannered "Boy George" consciously distanced himself from his old man. He advocated stability in the manager's chair, continuity on the roster, and favored a strong farm system over the free-agent route his father took. He said he wanted to emulate Col. Jacob Ruppert, the benevolent beer baron who paid for the "House That Ruth Built."
After the '86 season, Hank virtually disappeared from Yankeedom. When he reemerged last year, he sounded much like his dad. During his two decades in the wilderness, he had picked up many of George's traits and mannerisms: the good old boy backslapping and the crisp, self-confident military walk taught in institutes like the Culver Military Academy in Indiana, which both he and his dad attended.
The new Hank is as bombastic and quotable as his father was. "Red Sox Nation?" he snapped during spring training. "What a bunch of bullshit that is. That was a creation of the Red Sox and ESPN, which is filled with Red Sox fans. Go anywhere in America and you won't see Red Sox hats and jackets, you'll see Yankee hats and jackets. This is a Yankee country. We're going to put the Yankees back on top and restore the universe to order."
Hank sounds less like Attila the Hun than Attila from Hun-a handle suitable for a gassy caller to sports talk-radio. "The guy's a blowhard," says a prominent baseball agent. "But, unlike his father, he's an ineffectual blowhard."
When Alex Rodriguez decided to opt out of his $252 million contract last October, Hank crowed that he would not renegotiate with A-Rod because the decision eliminated the $21.3 million subsidy the Yankees were to receive from Texas from 2008 to 2010. "No chance," said Hank. "If you don't want to be a Yankee and paid what you're being paid, we don't want you. That's the bottom line."
Exactly two weeks after taking that stand, Hank cavalierly stepped off it and welcomed A-Rod back. "At this point, it appears he's willing to make sacrifices to be a Yankee," Hank more or less explained. "Basically that's it in a nutshell." A month after that, Hank signed the third baseman to a record 10-year, $275 million deal. Some sacrifice!
As happened with his father, Hank's ideas have sometimes been met with resistance. Last winter he demanded that the Yanks trade 23-year-old center fielder Melky Cabrera and two of the team's most promising prospects-one of them 21-year-old Phil Hughes-to the Minnesota Twins for 30-year-old ace Johan Santana.
Though general manager Brian Cashman opposed the swap, Hank told reporters in early January that he was "leaning towards doing it.. I always told Brian that I'm going to make the final decisions because when you're the owner you should." Ten days later Cashman and Hank's brother (and fellow co-chairman) Hal convinced him to pull the offer off the table.
Hank is lucky he didn't listen to his inner chieftain. Though Hughes struggled mightily-with four losses and a 9.00 earned-run average in his first six starts before going on the disabled list-Cabrera has been indispensable. He is batting .299 and is tied for first on the team in homers (five), ranks second in runs (14), and has a better on-base percentage than A-Rod. He is also the team's only decent center fielder.
Hank's latest animated tirade came late last month. Just 20 games into the campaign, he declared that young phenom Joba Chamberlain was miscast as a setup man. The 22-year-old Chamberlain, he proclaimed, should be shifted from the bull pen into the starting rotation immediately.
Never mind that Chamberlain has started just 15 games in his entire professional career, all in the minors. Never mind that in the final two months of the 2007 season Chamberlain was 2-0 with a 0.38 E.R.A. in 24 innings. And never mind that Chamberlain almost single-handedly propelled the Yanks into the playoffs.
Hank said "only an idiot" would use a pitcher with 100-mile-an-hour stuff in that role. "The bull pen is important, but starting pitching is 70 percent of it," he said. "Your bull pen can't do you any good if you're down by five runs quickly every night. It's logical."
But so is Cashman, who has put the youngster on strict pitch and innings limits-something which has come to be known as the "Joba Rules." Under this year's rules, Chamberlain will be limited to 140 innings.
Cashman reasons that sticking Chamberlain in the pen during the early months of the season will not only protect the pitcher's arm, but will also give the team sufficient time to find his successor as setup man. "I don't believe Hank wants Joba in the rotation yesterday," Cashman says, hopefully. "I think he wants what we all want."
Chairman Hank's outbursts make for great campfire satire, and they have prompted yet another Onion headline: "Steinbrenner Tells Sons to Mellow Out."
Visit Portfolio.com for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers. Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.