The last time I saw Hank Steinbrenner, I think, was very early one November morning, 2009.
It was dark and cold outside Yankee Stadium. He was standing on a landing, a couple steps into a breeze that had caused him to turn up the lapel on his sport coat. He pressed a cell phone to an ear with one hand and waved a near-spent cigarette with the other, so the orangey glow bounced and swirled with his conversation. Maybe it was the late hour and maybe it was the champagne, but Hank leaned heavily onto an iron barrier, his elbows on the top bar and one foot propped on the bottom bar.
The passing headlights, directed toward Macombs Dam Bridge, cast him in silhouette. On the road, faceless people shouted from their windows to no one in particular, and honked their horns, and on the sidewalk others returned the boastful chatter.
The Yankees were champions again and Hank's father seemed barely lucid enough to understand it. Indeed, George Steinbrenner would die the following summer. Watching Hank tilt rakishly into the darkness of the night and the future, I thought, "Now that's what the owner of the New York Yankees looks like."
A smoke-'em-if-ya-got-'em, shoot-from-the-hip loudmouth in a $1,500 blue blazer, a guy who'd gripe about the commissioner just as easy as he'd bury a utilityman who couldn't get an eighth-inning bunt down. You know, versatile like that.
Alas, it wasn't long before the button-down, smart brother won – that would be Hal – though not before Hank rakishly smoked and shot the payroll to bits with the Alex Rodriguez contract, like, seconds before Hal broke down the door to the office and yanked the phone cord from the wall.
So, the Yankees went corporate, more corporate, just like their new building, and the team probably never would be lost in a late-night poker game in a Midtown penthouse, sadly enough. I didn't know how many personnel decisions would be made in a rage, or out of spite, or just to piss off the Boston Red Sox or the commissioner, but I assumed it would be fewer.
And the Yankees became, I don't know, a little boring. The Red Sox were the full-blown zoo, while the Yankees dispensed pellets to the petting zoo. That's why Thursday was so important, so interesting, and so fun.
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When the New York Daily News reported that the Steinbrenners were considering selling the Yankees, my first impression is the story never would have been planted/written/splashed across a back page if Hank were still running things.
First, I wouldn't believe Hank would sell, not by the way he talked about the team, the way he went all pit bull on the pencil necks who dared cross the pinstripes, the way he scowled as he cupped a heater against the Bronx wind. Hank, like his pops, right or wrong, friend or foe, swung the Yankees like a war scythe.
Second, this sounds to me like the perfect crime. The Los Angeles Dodgers sell for an outrageous $2.15 billion, and would it be that great a leap to assume the Yankees – for the franchise, the ballpark, YES Network and the worldwide brand – could go for twice that? So, you're some smart guy who reports to another smart guy who happens to work for the Yankees, and you come up with a strategy that leaks word the Yankees might actually be had for the right price, all while maintaining plausible deniability.
Hal Steinbrenner, president Randy Levine, general manager Brian Cashman, even the league office come charging out from behind their desks to shoot down the Daily News story, which, granted, was a little light on particulars, but carried the unmistakable message: Psst, call me.
"Pure fiction," Hal said.
"There is absolutely, positively nothing to this," Levine said.
"Highly unlikely," Cashman said.
"Hmmm, the Yankees?" every guy with a couple billion dollars to rub together said.
Honestly, owning a major-league baseball team is less about getting rich than it is staying rich. Between the public-sponsored ballparks, the TV revenue, the revenue sharing (assuming you're on the happy end), the advertising, the Internet, all that, the place practically pays for itself. Then, at the end, you double your money, at worst. Frank McCourt walked in for airfare and walked out having cleared something like $1 billion.
[Big League Stew: Steinbrenner family refutes rumors of possible sale of Yankees]
It's a vanity buy, of course. You have a bunch of wealthy old white men who generally made their fortunes anonymously, which doesn't play quite as well on the golf course or the piano bar. But the owner of the local professional ballclub? Well, let's just say the piano bar just became a much happier place. And smells better.
These things do run their course, however. The headaches can be enormous. Just this spring Hal announced the Yankees would be cutting payroll, because, well, because he said so. In the wake of the report the Steinbrenners could possibly be on the cusp of maybe considering something like auctioning the Yankees (if I read that right), there arrived testimonials that Hal and the rest of the Steinbrenner brood loved the Yankees, loved baseball, loved the players, loved the fight of it all.
And I found that amazing. I mean, that it even needed to be said. George hated about as well as he loved, but there was never a doubt about his loyalties. The man would go to his grave in a pinstriped bullpen car, and he damned near did. A few years later, his heirs – and the people who work for his heirs – spent a day defending their commitment to what their father built.
Maybe they'll sell one day. Maybe they won't. But, it made me think of two things:
Everything has its price.
And I miss George. And Hank.
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