Back when he was the new owner of the Washington Redskins, trying to buy an NFC East title he would not win, Daniel Snyder heard the name George Steinbrenner and cringed. No. Snyder insisted. No. No. No. Never would he become that.
And even as Snyder marched on through the years, throwing millions at players and lopping the heads off coaches and public relations officials in a frenzy only Steinbrenner could love, he was right. He could not be another Steinbrenner. He never won like George. And more significantly, he proved unwilling to take the scorn.
When fans booed Steinbrenner in the rain at Yankee Stadium the night Reggie Jackson returned as an Angel, he stood defiant in their roar. When Redskins fans taunted Snyder last fall at FedEx Field, he temporarily banned signs in the stands then handed the organization to Mike Shanahan and promised to fade into the background.
It was never easy to be George Steinbrenner, spending all that money, ranting in the parking lots, spoiling Thanksgiving dinners as he delivered holiday pink slips to helpless minions who somehow failed his whims. It was even harder to wake up the next morning and face the carnage, explain it away and keep shoving forward. Which is why there will never be another George Steinbrenner.
Snyder might have been close. He had the money, the power and seemingly the will. He wasn't Al Davis, old and desperate for revenue and relevance. Davis said he burned to win. But even he found being Steinbrenner too taxing. Since firing his last coach, Jim Zorn, and hiring Shanahan, he's hardly been seen.
Times have changed. The world Steinbrenner came to dominate has shifted. His rise to power came at a fortuitous confluence of a crumbling New York desperate for a hero and the advent of free agency, which Steinbrenner exploited ruthlessly. In came Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson. And once George won the World Series in 1977 and 1978, he felt emboldened to spend through every problem that arose. Even after he served his suspension from baseball in the early 1990s and returned a supposedly changed man, he continued to buy titles until he outspent his rivals so much he had to build a new stadium to keep funding the machine.
But chasing George proved futile to everyone else. Few owners could afford to spend like him. More and more, teams are spending on minor league systems and building through drafts. Yes, the Miami Heat just signed three superstars for more than $100 million each, but those deals were done within the constraints of the NBA salary cap, and they will be hit with a luxury tax for every dollar they overspend. Not many teams are willing to do that. The smart money now is in player development. Even Jerry Jones, the swashbuckling owner of the Dallas Cowboys, has embraced the concept of building with draft picks, not free-agent splashes.
Lavish spending is out. When the NFL and its players union really get serious in negotiations, the topic will be just how much money the players can be expected to give back. The same goes for the NBA, where owners are demanding a hard salary cap. There just isn't room for a Steinbrenner anymore, other than his son Hal, who tries to run the Yankees the way his father did.
But even Hal Steinbrenner shuns the spotlight. This is the way now. Sports commissioners, fearful of having their power eclipsed, push away flamboyant owner prospects. Major League Baseball has been working for months to keep Mark Cuban from the game despite the fact he would instantly become one of its best owners. Commissioners instead love men like the Seahawks' and Trail Blazers' Paul Allen or Stan Kroneke, owner of the Nuggets and Avalanche who is trying to become sole owner of the Rams. They are fabulously wealthy and spend freely on their teams, but they do so without drawing attention, without becoming the story. Steinbrenner probably wouldn’t get through the door today if he came to Bud Selig with a winning bid for a baseball team in hand.
The current model for an extrovert owner might well be Ted Leonsis, the former AOL head who turned the Washington Capitals into a winner and has now bought full control of the Washington Wizards as well. Leonsis is rich and powerful. He thrives on attention and bristles at criticism. However, his frustrations are not broadcast in great proclamations like Steinbrenner but in subtle blog posts. When he first bought his hockey team, he thought, like Steinbrenner, he had to buy a title and spent tens of millions on Jaromir Jagr only to have the signing fail. Leonsis learned. Instead of purchasing stars, he would build them on his own, drafting them and nourishing them. He would win over time. Not right away.
Nothing like George Steinbrenner, who died on Tuesday at 80.
For the last quarter of the last century, Steinbrenner changed sports.
But his era is gone now.
Ownership is a different ballgame.
His legacy is safe.
There will never be another one like him.