NEW YORK -- They honored an owner Friday night.
They honored a guy who was kind and giving, a guy who wanted you to win but comforted you when you lost. They honored a guy who treated his players so well that they considered him family, a guy so pleasant that he never, ever berated his manager.
|On the loss of his former boss, Derek Jeter says, 'It's not immediate family, but it is a family member.' (Getty Images)|
This was George Steinbrenner?
On Friday night in the grandiose stadium he caused to be built, this was George Steinbrenner. This was the Steinbrenner the Yankees chose to remember, but this was also the Steinbrenner most of them have known.
It's not the full story. Of course it's not. You didn't expect the full story, not at Yankee Stadium, not from the Yankees, and certainly not on the night the Yankees honored their late owner, just three days after his death.
But this isn't just about making a man sound greater in death than he ever was in life.
For these Yankees, and for these fans, this was the Steinbrenner they knew. This was the beloved Boss they spoke of so often last October and November. This was the owner who was rarely seen and even more rarely heard, the owner whose few words were almost always encouraging.
Remember, it's been years since Steinbrenner -- the one the rest of us choose to remember -- fired a manager or anyone else. It's been years since he embarrassed a player on the back pages of the New York tabloids.
And, of course, it's been years since he was convicted of a felony, years since he was banned from baseball.
Yes, Steinbrenner's legacy was complicated, as so many people (including colleague Scott Miller) wrote and said after his death. But to those who showed up at Yankee Stadium for Friday's Steinbrenner tribute game -- players and fans alike -- his legacy isn't complicated at all.
For them, it's quite simple, as Yankee captain Derek Jeter explained when someone asked what he tells his teammates.
"I just want them to know that the reason they're in this stadium is Mr. Steinbrenner," Jeter said. "That's all they need to know."
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It was Jeter who described Steinbrenner as a friend, Jeter who took the microphone before the game at the end of a well-done ceremony to ask for a moment of silence for both Steinbrenner and Bob Sheppard, the longtime public address announcer who died last Sunday.
The Yankees honored Sheppard on Friday by playing his introduction -- "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Yankee Stadium" -- and they left the public-address microphone mostly silent, foregoing the usual introductions of batters and pitchers.
For the most part, though, this was Steinbrenner's night, and rightfully so. He was the owner, and in a large way he was also the creator of what the Yankees are now.
What they are is a first-place team, a team with baseball's best record, which gained a little extra shine with Friday's 5-4, come-from-behind win over the Rays.
"That would have made him proud," general manager Brian Cashman said.
"I think the club played like Mr. Steinbrenner expected," a just-as-emotional Girardi said. "A night that's a very sad night ... I think the Boss would be proud."
Girardi saw meaning everywhere, even in Ohio State's Nick Swisher getting the game-winning hit.
"[Steinbrenner] loved his Yankees," Girardi said. "And he loved his Buckeyes."
Girardi's voice nearly gave out as he described the moment in the pregame ceremony when Mariano Rivera placed a pair of roses on home plate. Rivera struggled before the game when he explained how tough this week and this day had been for him.
"Even though he wasn't around much recently, now you know he won't be here -- period," Rivera said.
Because Steinbrenner's declining health had mostly kept him away from the Yankees, few members of the current team could really claim to know the owner. But for Rivera, who signed with the Yankees as a 20-year-old in 1990, and for Girardi, traded to the Yankees as a 31-year-old in 1996, Steinbrenner truly had been the Boss.
The same obviously held true for Jeter, who Steinbrenner named years ago as Yankee captain.
Jeter said that when he woke up Tuesday morning in Anaheim, he had messages on his phone consoling him on "his loss."
So you worried that it was a family member, someone asked.
"Well, it is a family member," he said. "It's not immediate family, but it is a family member."
A family member who always demanded your best.
As Jeter said after his 0-for-5 night Friday, "Every time I made an out, I heard the Boss's voice in my ear."
For these Yankees, that's the Steinbrenner legacy that remains, and that will remain. That's what remained constant over the last few years, even as Steinbrenner's health failed him, and even as the craziness and even ugliness of the early Steinbrenner years seemed to disappear.
The Yankees of recent years still considered any season that ended without a world championship incomplete, but when they failed to even make the playoffs in 2008, Girardi's first season, the manager kept his job.
Perhaps even if he hadn't, Girardi would have been among those paying tribute to Steinbrenner Friday night. The video messages shown on the big scoreboard in center field included ones from Yogi Berra and Dave Winfield, two men who experienced the Steinbrenner of legend.
It's popular now to praise him, especially in New York and especially for anyone even partially associated with the Yankees. Maybe that's wrong.
Maybe you cringe when you hear him described as "a great man," as one Yankee after another said Friday.
To them, he was great. To them, he was everything they said he was.
And that was the George Steinbrenner they remembered Friday night.