I really wish ESPN had scheduled tonight’s “30 for 30” entry, Barbara Kopple’s “The House of Steinbrenner,” for virtually any other week of the baseball season. I have so much to say about this one, and absolutely no time to say it in the midst of Premiere Week hell, so let me see if I can sum up my thoughts quickly, after the jump…
First, I imagine this film will be polarizing in the same way “The U” was earlier in the series, because the Yankees themselves are polarizing. If you care about baseball, you either love them or despise them with every fiber of your being. As someone who grew up in a Yankee household and remembers staying up late to watch the Mr. October game (and then decades later being in the stands for the Mr. November game), I fall in the “love” camp.
But what I thought Kopple did so well was to capture the ambivalence that even die-hard Yankee fans like me can have about parts of the franchise. We ran hot and cold on George Steinbrenner, usually based on where the Yankees were in the standings at the time, but even when the team was going well, there was a sense that it was partially in spite of The Boss, who even with his open checkbook was like a monster lurking around the corner. (Before it became clear that George’s health had removed him from hands-on management, I began to view the idea of the team winning another World Series as something that would give me relief, not joy, because I was so terrified of what he would do in response to another non-championship season.) And in good times and in bad, there were always the stories about how terribly he treated people – and then of course the ones (some repeated in the film) about how surprisingly generous he could be. So while some fans may shudder at the more corporate mindset of Hal Steinbrenner, and at his discomfort at being in the spotlight compared to his old man, I’m willing to trade some excitement for not having a man who might be a lunatic having final say in operations.
Similarly, I think the new stadium is gorgeous, and the handful of times I’ve been there I’ve loved being able to circle the open concourses and see the whole game, but I can’t justify spending the ticket/food money to take my family there more than once a year (if that), and I remain stunned that so little fight was put up when everyone began to talk about tearing down The House That Ruth Built, that Joe and Mickey and Reggie and Jeter did so many amazing things in.
George bought the team around the time I was born, and my earliest baseball memories are of that ’77 World Series. Watching the documentary, a lot of memories of what was happening in my life came flooding back at various points. I saw Charlie Hayes catch the pop-up to win the ’96 Series, for instance, and thought about being at that game, the last one I saw with my father before he died. There was a lot of talk of fathers and sons here, of the Yankees, like any team, being a tradition passed down through the generations – but in this case a tradition with much less potential for heartbreak than for, say, families on Chicago’s north side.
With George’s death and the demolition of the old Stadium, some of that tradition is now only a part of memory. Pieces of the Stadium may have been sold off (and I sure hope the Gehrig/Jeter/Munson column that Ray Negron showed us found a good home), and the new place looks like a shinier, airier version of the old (which was, after the ’70s remodel, itself unrecognizable from its Ruth/DiMaggio/Mantle days). And though I’ve had good times at games there, was happy to see the team win another title last year, and am relieved that Hal seems to mostly leave the GM alone, it does feel sometimes like something is missing.
It’s very good to be a Yankee fan most of the time. But it can also be a surprisingly unsettling experience, and Kopple neatly captured so many of the conflicting emotions I’ve had over the years about the team and its ownership.
What did everybody else think?