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George Steinbrenner: Hero or Villain?

By Jon Friedman   |   Wednesday, 21 Jul 2010 10:36 AM

George Steinbrenner, who recently died of a heart attack, was the most polarizing figure on the U.S. sports scene.

In other words, Steinbrenner perfectly reflected his team and the public's love-hate attitude toward Steinbrenner pride and joy of 37 years, the New York Yankees.

To his detractors — and, yes, there were many — Steinbrenner was the ultimate boorish owner who continually fired managers and coaches, berated players in the media, preened for the press and took advantage of the sport's bizarre decision not to impose a salary cap on spending for players.

To this crowd, Steinbrenner came across as alternately clownish and thuggish.

On the other hand, Steinbrenner's supporters will smugly point out that the Yankees captured s-e-v-e-n championships on his watch, revolutionized Major League Baseball by creating a cable-television network, became the sport's biggest draw at home and on the road, and injected some much-needed pizzazz into the national pastime at a time when pro football threatened to render baseball irrelevant on the American scene.

I would place myself in the latter camp. I unabashedly bleed Yankee blue. I think Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera belong in a higher Hall of Fame than the mundane one in Cooperstown. And I appreciate the team's enormous success under the man who loved to be known as "The Boss."

I'd like to think that Steinbrenner was more the guy who spoofed his image as a bully on "Saturday Night Live" and allowed "Seinfeld" to lampoon him on many shows.

Even if you hated Steinbrenner, you had to laugh with Larry David's humorous send-up of "Big Stein." It's especially winning when you heard Steinbrenner divulged that he only allowed NBC to use his likeness on "Seinfeld" so his grandkids could see him in a funny light.

I'm a Steinbrenner fan. He wasn't perfect. He could make me wince. I don't subscribe to the winning-is-everything philosophy of sports-as-life-lesson.

But Steinbrenner did create excitement and entertainment — and yes, his team won. A lot. Winning may not be the only thing. But it sure beats the alternative.

Jon Friedman writes the Media Web column for MarketWatch.com. Click here to read his latest column.

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