Waking up yesterday to the news that George Steinbrenner had passed away got me thinking about his legacy in professional baseball. Steinbrenner was much like any iconic figure associated with a winning dynasty — he was loved by many and despised by an almost equal number. The fans of the New York Yankees might have been driven crazy at times by his meddlesome tactics, but they truly loved the fact that his sole intention in owning the Yankees was winning. He would spend any amount of money to try and acquire the talent that he felt his team needed to win a World Series… and anything short of a world championship was considered a failure.
As I reflected on that attitude and the dichotomy of opinions about Steinbrenner, I was reminded of the almost equal feelings for Rick Hendrick. Hendrick is loved by the fans of Hendrick Motorsports and its drivers and almost equally as loathed by the fans of drivers that compete against them. One thing is certain, Hendrick and Steinbrenner shared the feeling that anything less than a championship was a failure.
Hendrick has been an owner in the Cup series since 1984. He has scored nine Cup championships with three different drivers and 193 wins. Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees in 1973 and won eleven pennants and seven World Series titles. It’s undeniable that both men changed the landscape of their sports and brought themselves financial success through their approaches to winning. Neither man was afraid to spend money to acquire the necessary talent to win the championships that they coveted.
Steinbrenner took over the Yankees when the National League was unquestionably the stronger of the two leagues. His approach of using, and sometimes abusing, the free-agent process rather than building from within ended up driving player salaries through the roof and bringing quite a bit of hatred to himself from other owners. However, by stockpiling the best talent in the business the other teams in the American League were forced to follow his lead or be destined to lose to the Yankees. The end result was that the American League has been far and away the better of the two over the last two decades.
Steinbrenner did have a flaw that, at least to this point, Hendrick has not exhibited. He was notorious for constantly meddling in the operation of the team and making decisions on personnel based on his feelings and opinions rather than trusting the abilities of his baseball people. A player would come in and have a good series against the Yankees, even though he was having a subpar season, and Steinbrenner would push for the team to acquire that player. The tough years that hit the Yankees in the ’80s and early ’90s most certainly could be attributed to Steinbrenner’s interference.
When Steinbrenner hired Joe Torre and ultimately started listening to him more than he had listened to other managers in the past, the modern Yankee dynasty took off. Looking from the outside in, Hendrick has never seemed to have that problem. Hendrick is a people person and he knows that if he puts the best minds in place they will succeed, assuming he provides them with all of the resources they need. Hendrick has also been extremely loyal to his employees and the extent to which he’ll go to take care of them is well known throughout the garage.
The one other interesting parallel in the sports has been the primary foil for the well-known bosses. In baseball the Boston Red Sox have long been the hated rival of the Yankees and, for the most part, have always come in second to them. There have been two championships in recent years for the Sox, but the Yankees have far and away owned the upper hand over their histories.
The same thing has happened in NASCAR with Jack Roush. Roush has had a couple of championships in the last few years with Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, but for the past 20 years, he’s been chasing Hendrick. Roush has had plenty of success, with 116 wins in the Cup Series, but the championships continued to elude him (until Busch’s title in 2004) and most of the time landed in the hands of Hendrick. It is truly ironic that John Henry and his Fenway Marketing Group are the owners of the Red Sox as well as part owners of Roush Fenway Racing.
The other trait that both Hendrick and Steinbrenner have shared is an incredible sense of philanthropy. While both have done some public philanthropic projects, they’ve had far more projects that have taken place completely out of the headlines. There’s no doubt there will be tons of stories coming out in the coming days, weeks and months of things Steinbrenner did for hundreds of people without any publicity at all. Hendrick does an equal amount of good without any fanfare, just out of the kindness of his heart.
Steinbrenner and Hendrick have undoubtedly changed the landscape of their sports for the betterment of their employees and the fans of their organizations. Unfortunately, those changes often go unnoticed until the person passes on, but there is no question that each has had a profound and lasting impact on their sport.
Baseball lost a true icon yesterday and whether you loved him or hated him, you had to admire Steinbrenner’s true passion for his beloved Yankees to win. The same can be said for Mr. Hendrick.