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The Boss can become The Hero

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002


In a time of trouble, a sport looks for a hero.

Never has baseball been in such need of a man of vision, a man of purpose. Never has it needed someone with a finer sense of sacrifice, with more awareness of the common good. Never has it needed someone to guide the way.

Never has baseball looked more desperately toward. . .

George Steinbrenner.

Do not laugh. This can be George's time. This can be George's legacy. This era can be remembered, for all time, as the time when George saved baseball.

He has been many things, Steinbrenner. He has been controversial, and he has been careless, and he has been a champion. He can be short on mercy and long on money and quick on the trigger. He can be combative, competitive, cantankerous. Also, compassionate, caring and charitable. He is, of course, George, the most compelling figure in baseball over the past three decades.

Now, however, he can be more than that.

Now, he can be great.

More than anyone else, baseball needs Steinbrenner to guide the way toward a more sensible economic system. It needs him to come out of the shadows of a punchless commissioner and lead the fight. Only then would the public, and the players, pay any attention.

Can you imagine the news conference?

"Hello, everyone, and thanks for coming," Steinbrenner would say. "Did you miss me?"

There would be some general laughter, and one reporter would wonder if Steinbrenner was angry at Joe Torre and another would wonder if he had traded for Barry Bonds. Then George would say this:

"Baseball has problems. Everyone knows that. What it really needs, for its long-term survival, is revenue sharing and a salary cap. I'm here today to say I support it, even though it would cost us a lot of money. I ask Yankee fans to realize that, if money is spread out more evenly, it reduces our chances to win the World Series every year. But this is better for the sport. Besides, we'll still win our share. Or I'll have something else to say."

Such a stance would be Steinbrenner's finest moment. By taking it, he would transcend being an owner who won a lot of titles and become a man who saw the greater good.

Remember Pete Rozelle? The greatest thing Rozelle did as NFL commissioner was persuade the owners to share their money. Had he not, the New York Giants would be the Yankees, and the Packers would be the Brewers. But would the NFL be better off? No.

This, then, is Steinbrenner's chance to be Rozelle. If he talks, the other owners are going to listen.

It's a lot to ask, of course. No one stands to lose more from revenue sharing than Steinbrenner. He has the most revenue. He also has the most championships. He has the biggest chance for success. Why on earth should he do anything to risk any of it?

Because the game needs him to, that's why.

No, Steinbrenner shouldn't act because of what Cleveland's Larry Dolan said the other day, that the Yankees are to blame for baseball's economic problems. Dolan is a mosquito buzzing around Steinbrenner's face, trying to make as much noise as possible. Dolan is the guy who lives in the medium-sized house who is jealous of George's mansion. One question for Dolan: Do you volunteer to share what you have with those have less than you? If not, shut up.

Say this much for Steinbrenner: He still gets a lot more victories-per-dollar than some owners. The Yankees spend a lot, but they don't spend willy-nilly like the Rangers or the Dodgers or the Mets. There are a lot of examples that spending money doesn't necessarily mean winning titles.

That said, Dolan's statement is worth noting for this reason. Whether it's because of jealousy or frustration or admiration, other owners do look to Steinbrenner. The Yankees are the symbol of the disparity in baseball.

Most nights, the Yankees are winning sword fights with unarmed men. And the disparity is horrible for the sport. Under Steinbrenner the Yankees have won six World Series. How many would they have won if everyone spent the same amount? Wouldn't you love to see?

Who else is going to lead the fight? Peter Angelos? Jeffrey Loria? Jerry Colangelo? Please. You could put every other baseball owner in a room, and most of us would need name tags to identify any of them. If Tom Hicks held a news conference to support revenue sharing, you'd leave with one question. Who in the heck is Tom Hicks?

Again, most owners in Steinbrenner's position wouldn't change a thing. Why give another owner money so he can hire away your free agents and try to beat you with them? Why give another owner money so he can stick it in his hip pocket and keep it? When you have the most toys, it's tough to see the logic in giving them away.

Even if Steinbrenner took such a stance, there is nothing to say the players do anything more than shrug. Even now, Don Fehr is busy rehearsing his shrug no matter what Bud Selig says next.

But such a stance by Steinbrenner would do a lot toward winning a public relations battle that Selig seems intent upon losing. If the richest, most recognizable owner in baseball is willing to make allowances, why shouldn't they? If he is willing to take a little less money, shouldn't they? If he is concerned about the greater good, why aren't they?

Steinbrenner, by nature, is a sportsman. He loves walking the backstretch at Churchill Downs. He loved marching with Olympic athletes. And he loves baseball.

In 100 years, how is Steinbrenner going to be remembered? As a guy who won a lot of games? As a guy who wore a lot of rings? Or as the guy who saved his sport?

Consider this: A lot of Yankee owners have won a lot of games, and none of them are in the Hall of Fame. This is George's chance to open the door.

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