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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Hank Steinbrenner was Yankees' brightest torchbearer for too brief a time

In this Jan. 24, 2008, file photo, Yankees

In this Jan. 24, 2008, file photo, Yankees general partner Hank Steinbrenner sits in his office during an interview at Legends Field in Tampa, Fla. Credit: AP/Steve Nesius

The Yankees will forever have only one Boss.

But during one tumultuous yearlong stretch, a relative blip in the franchise’s glorious lifetime, they had a Hank in charge.

As in Hank Steinbrenner, George’s eldest son and the closest the Yankees ever came to replicating the bombastic, tabloid back-page governing style of the family patriarch. Hank’s reign lasted roughly from the time of the Yankees’ Division Series exit in 2007 through his brother Hal’s ascension in November ’08, but he was a force of nature during that period.

Hank didn’t step into the power void left by his ailing dad — he kicked down the pinstriped door and led with his chain-smoking chin.

That vision of Hank sprung to mind Tuesday upon learning that he passed away at his home in Clearwater, Florida, at the age of 63 from what the Yankees described as a “long-standing health issue.”

Hank had virtually disappeared from the public eye for the past decade, nudged into the Yankees’ shadows by Hal taking over as the team’s managing general partner, as the franchise fully adopted its current buttoned-down, measured-words, corporate persona.

Basically, the opposite of Hank.

Were the Yankees better off for it? Probably. Hal’s cool, businesslike demeanor is a better fit for this era in baseball. While he does engage with the media on occasion, Hal picks his words carefully (despite carrying some of his dad’s mannerisms) and plays well with others. He is a commissioner’s dream, especially atop the sport’s highest-profile franchise.

As for the rest of us? Hank’s disappearance was a total downer. There was no replacing King George, but Hank was the next-best thing, a blunt, bare-fisted brawler when it came to tangling with his foes, and he was never shy about doing so.

Like his dad, the Red Sox were his favorite targets. Hank once referred to their big-mouth closer, Jonathan Papelbon, as a “mouse” and defended Andy Pettitte from Fenway Park’s harassment about PED use by saying, “They had plenty of players doing this stuff too. It’s just that those players weren’t mentioned in the Mitchell Report.”

At the top of Hank’s greatest hit jobs on Boston, however, was his taking issue with the whole concept of “Red Sox Nation.” In true Steinbrenner fashion, that generated a higher level of annoyance. Hank couldn’t let that stand.

“Red Sox Nation? What a bunch of [expletive] that is,” Hank famously told The New York Times during the winter of ’08. “That was a creation of the Red Sox and ESPN, which is filled with Red Sox fans. Go anywhere in America and you won’t see Red Sox hats and jackets. You’ll see Yankee hats and jackets. This is a Yankee country. We’re going to put the Yankees back on top and restore the universe to order.”

How could you not cheer the man? Maybe it wasn’t the most effective leadership style, and maybe it didn’t sound so great in a boardroom, but Hank never seemed to care.

He didn’t get an MBA like his brother. Hank went straight to the Steinbrenners’ Ocala horse farm after graduating from Central Methodist University in 1980 and planned on staying there, running the racing biz, until his father pulled him back in to the baseball side.

When the ailing George had to lean on the sons to take over, it was only natural that Hank, the more vocal of the two, gravitated to the spotlight. We in the media love such characters, and Hank could not have been more accommodating. For us, he was the perfect transitional figure, taking the handoff from George and rumbling downfield, an irrepressible force. Hank would sound off on any subject, and it was only fitting that two of his early targets were Alex Rodriguez and Joe Torre.

Fate put Hank at the wheel when both of those polarizing figures reached their Yankees crossroads. He publicly jousted with Rodriguez — “Does he want to go into the Hall of Fame as a Yankee or a Toledo Mud Hen?” — before the team ultimately relented on a $275 million extension. As for Torre, that squabble ended with the manager going to L.A. and Hank giving his own history lesson.

“Where was Joe’s career in ’95 when my dad hired him?” Hank told the New York Post then. “My dad was crucified for hiring him. Let’s not forget what my dad did in giving him that opportunity and the great team he was handed.”

That was Hank. Fiercely loyal to his father, the family and the Yankees. It’s a quality not soon forgotten despite Hank’s slipping into more of a background role in recent years.

“Hank could be direct and outspoken, but in the very same conversation show great tenderness and lightheartedness,” the Steinbrenner family said Tuesday in a statement. “More than anything, he set an example for all of us in how comfortably he lived enjoying his personal passions and pursuits.”

He was a colorful, combative figure who was a suitable, if brief, torchbearer of his dad’s legacy. Hank left a memorable mark on the biggest, brightest stage — and one that can only be darker now without him.

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