No one in the Yankees' organization ever wanted to deliver bad news to George Steinbrenner because they knew what the reaction would be. By the same token, when there was an occasion to bring good news about spring training tickets, general manager Brian Cashman recalled, a member of the sales staff once just couldn't wait.
"Boss, we sold out in 30 minutes for the whole spring," said the beaming employee, bursting with hope for a compliment.
Cashman, who was a witness, said: "The Boss went ballistic. He said, 'That means you didn't charge enough on the prices. You idiot!' He ripped into this guy because ticket sales went so fast."
The lesson is that the man who owns the Yankees and turns 80 Sunday has always been demanding and has always made sure the people around him knew it. As team president Randy Levine said with a grin, "He's the master of pitching inside."
Steinbrenner is not inside the Yankees' day-to-day operations these days. He is out of public sight. He hasn't been to Yankee Stadium since Opening Day. He doesn't command the tabloid back pages anymore, nor does he hector the manager. His health is a sensitive and guarded subject in the Yankees' universe amid reports that he uses a wheelchair and did not recognize a close friend at his 79th birthday celebration.
Still, people who work at high levels of the organization say his imprint on the Yankees is fresh and strong. As Levine said this past week during a public appearance at The New York Times as part of its Times Talks series, the Steinbrenner philosophy still holds: If the Yankees don't win the World Series, the season is a failure.
Bottom line: Even in his absence, he is a presence.
"He will always be the face of the franchise," Levine said of the man whose initial investment of $8.5 million has blossomed into a $1-billion entertainment and sports giant. "He still is the most famous owner in the world of professional sports. There is no question this is George Steinbrenner's team. He deserves all the credit."
George M. Steinbrenner III, who entered the world July 4, 1930, in Rocky River, Ohio, and grew up under an intensely hard-to-please father, set the bar high for the Yankees. It has remained that way under the much quieter, more analytical reign of his son Hal.
There is a case to be made that the post-1996 Yankees boom was made possible because Steinbrenner was banned from baseball decisions long enough to allow the core of young players to develop. At the same time, evidence indicates that a star-filled roster, a new ballpark and an immensely lucrative YES Network all were visions of the shipbuilder who led a group that purchased the team from CBS in 1973.
"The thing that's remarkable to me is that it takes about 50 people to do the jobs he did because he was the ticket director, the marketing director, general manager, the third-base coach, the pitching coach, the hitting coach, too," Cashman said at the Times forum. "He was hands-on in everything. He might have hired people to be in positions, but a lot of decisions were made or guided clearly by him.
"Who could take over a franchise as big as the Yankees and make it exponentially bigger? He did. And then he handed it over to his family, his sons and daughters, and watched them run it, and run it successfully."
Steinbrenner's family held a birthday party for him at the Yankees' Tampa headquarters Thursday, after which his spokesman, Howard J. Rubenstein, released a statement from The Boss. It said: "I want to thank everyone who has sent their good wishes. I am very fortunate to have the love and support of a great family and many, many friends. The Yankees and their fans are a large part of what keeps me going. It means a lot. And I remind everyone that the Fourth of July is also the birthday of our country. We are all lucky to be Americans."
Rubenstein told Newsday this past week that his famous client has "football knees" but has never had a stroke, adding that reports of declining health "are painting a false picture of George Steinbrenner."
Levine said the principal owner "is still active" and speaks with the team president several times a week. "He serves really as a chairman of the board type of figure," Levine said.
But Steinbrenner is hardly the larger-than-life character who ushered in the free- agent era by signing Catfish Hunter and advanced it by signing Reggie Jackson, or the outlandish figure who kept feuding and reconciling with Billy Martin and concocted a story about Dick Howser's retirement as manager to pursue a lucrative real estate deal.
"I got along with him most of the time when I was general manager, but when I was manager, I caught him in his heyday," said Gene Michael, who has been with the Yankees through almost all of Steinbrenner's tenure and now is senior vice president. "He was a little too fiery with the manager. You were on the hot seat all the time."
Michael saw Steinbrenner at a Yankees game at Tampa Bay late last season and found the owner to be analytical about the postseason. "At one point, I said, 'That's a big-league question right there,' " Michael said this past week.
Most people outside his family, however, do not get so close. Bill Madden, the Daily News baseball columnist who has known Steinbrenner well for more than 30 years, wrote in his extensively researched book - written with cooperation from the family - that sources said Steinbrenner had "suffered a series of transient ischemic attacks," the symptoms of which include confusion and trouble speaking and understanding.
Madden wrote in his book, "Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball," that the owner's good friend, Tampa restaurateur Malio Iavorone, realized Steinbrenner didn't recognize him on July 2, 2009, at a birthday lunch.
There is no disputing that Steinbrenner is not the hovering figure who made employees cower. Gone is the Steinbrenner who excoriated the wife of third-base coach Mike Ferraro after Ferraro got Willie Randolph thrown out at the plate during the 1980 American League Championship Series. He no longer is the guy who celebrated the 1996 championship by becoming enraged at the victory parade because the players' wives were boarding the team floats.
The Yankees now don't have a chief executive who would criticize the call on a coin flip to determine home field, as Steinbrenner did to team president and close friend Al Rosen 32 years ago. Madden wrote that Steinbrenner furiously said: "Heads? How in the hell could you call heads when any dummy knows tails comes up 70 percent of the time?"
Michael recalled a similar episode in which Steinbrenner asked him to research whether heads or tails came up most. "I told him, 'There's no most on it. It's going to be approximately 50 percent,' " the former general manager said, adding that just to be safe: "I wouldn't make the call. I let the other team call, and they lost."
The atmosphere is more serene in the Bronx now, with the manager's fate not up for grabs every day.
"He has meant so much to my career," Joe Girardi said. "From being a player and having a chance to play on three world championship teams to putting me behind a microphone as soon as I got done to being a bench coach to being manager of this organization."
Nonetheless, Girardi said, there is no letup in the Steinbrenner credo that says last year was last year; let's win this year. As Cashman said, "He never sat back, and never will, to take a breath and say all's good."
Besides, employees say that even at his worst, he wasn't so bad.
"He gave me a lot of opportunities over the years," Michael said. "I like to think that I helped him with patience and he helped me with business."
Sometimes The Boss was just being The Boss for the fun of it. Cashman recalled that after the sales staffer left, shaken over getting yelled at for selling all the spring training tickets, Steinbrenner looked at everyone remaining in the office, winked and said, "I really got him, didn't I?"