A series by Joel Sherman chronicles how the Yankees’ fiasco of 1990 laid the groundwork for a dynasty.
Mike Tyson was the baddest man in the world when he stepped into the ring at the Tokyo Dome on Feb. 11, 1990. He was the undisputed, undefeated heavyweight champion. Yet, his reputation existed beyond those designations. He permeated an aura of ferocity and invincibility.
Tyson was a feral wrecking machine, a fire hydrant delivering one audacious blow after another. Heartless. Merciless. Ruthless. Fights felt over before they began. His presence was prelude to a 10-count.
The idea that anyone could knock out Tyson in 1990 resided at the corner of impossible and inconceivable. That it would be 41-to-1 underdog Buster Douglas felt fittingly for boxing like a punchline.
But there was Tyson on the canvas in the 10th round, floundering around in a daze trying to retrieve his displaced mouthpiece, not beating the count.
It was one of the greatest sporting upsets ever, yet not even No. 1 for 1990.
That would belong to Howie Spira, nebbish from The Bronx, who knocked out another immortal heavyweight of the era — the heartless, merciless, ruthless George Steinbrenner.
Steinbrenner’s obsession to destroy Dave Winfield took him down many avenues, from suing his star outfielder to deriding him in the media to regularly trying to trade him. That it took him into Spira’s world proved most destructive … but not to Winfield.
Central to the Steinbrenner/Winfield/Spira triangle was Winfield’s charitable foundation. Part of Winfield’s 10-year Yankee contract signed in December 1980 were clauses calling for Steinbrenner to make annual $300,000 contributions to the foundation.
Steinbrenner, though, did not understand or appreciate that the cost-of-living elements within the contract could elevate the $15 million guarantee Winfield to about $23 million over the life of the deal. Humiliated, The Boss became immediately committed to Winfield’s destruction. He refused to make foundation payments, initiating years of contentious behavior between owner and slugger, plus suing and countersuing.
Spira claimed at the time he had worked as a publicist for Winfield’s foundation, while Winfield denied ever employing Spira. Among other allegations, Spira asserted Winfield charged usurious rates on a $15,000 loan, threatened to kill him and, with then-agent Al Frohman, contrived a story that Winfield received death threats during the 1981 World Series to explain the outfielder’s dreadful 1-for-22 showing versus the Dodgers.
Spira also said he had to borrow $100,000 from his parents due to substantial gambling debts he had racked up with the mob.
He was a human stay-away sign — even if his allegations could be corroborated. But Steinbrenner was transactional. He associated with those he thought could help him in the moment, and beginning in December 1986, became a willing listener to what Spira had to offer, including declarations Winfield was not making payments to his own foundation. In return, Spira said Steinbrenner promised him $150,000, a job and residence at the Yankee owner’s Radisson Bay Harbor Hotel in Tampa.
Steinbrenner ultimately paid $40,000 to Spira in January 1990. In a Manhattan court in May 1991, Spira ultimately would be sentenced to 2 ¹/₂ years in federal prison for attempting to extort the $110,000 he claimed Steinbrenner still owed from the $150,000 promise.
The price for Steinbrenner, though, was going to exceed $40,000.
Steinbrenner was Steinbrenner in the early months of 1990.
In January, talking to reporters at the 21 Club, Steinbrenner pledged, “If [the Yankees] get off to a bad start or a great start, then Bucky [Dent] is my manager. I’m saying it and that’s all I can do is say it.”
In June, Dent was fired.
In January, Steinbrenner had blasted the Giants for giving Will Clark an MLB-record, four-year, $15 million pact, calling it irresponsible and outrageous to pay a player that much. In April, he gave Don Mattingly a new record five-year, $19.3 million extension.
In the spring, Steinbrenner said the Angels’ Mike Witt lacked the personality to handle New York and would not trade for him. In May, the Yankees traded Winfield for Witt — and Steinbrenner said he had nothing to do with the deal, which was kind of hilarious.
But the place he kept changing his story most was in trying to explain why he had dealt with Spira and given an admitted gambler $40,000 in two installments for dirt on his own player. And the guy listening was judge and jury.
“George believed the rules of ordinary people — business, commerce and baseball — did not apply to him,” then-commissioner Fay Vincent recalled about dealing with The Boss.
The Spira payment was initially revealed publicly in a March 1990 report, just as Vincent was helping to end the owners’ 32-day lockout of players and opening spring training. Vincent empowered Washington lawyer John Dowd to investigate the matter. Dowd had been hired by MLB the previous year to probe allegations of Pete Rose’s gambling, including on baseball. His report served as the cornerstone to Vincent’s predecessor, Bart Giamatti, placing Rose on the permanently ineligible list.
Dowd delivered the report to Vincent in June that among other damning items cited voluminous contact between Steinbrenner and Spira over a three-year period. Vincent summoned Steinbrenner to the commissioner’s office on July 5 — the day after The Boss’ 60th birthday. Vincent was joined by his deputy commissioner, Steve Greenberg, but also brought in respected former federal court judge Harold Tyler to make sure due process was afforded Steinbrenner, so there would not be improper behavior for The Boss to seize upon at a later date. Steinbrenner had multiple lawyers, but not a cohesive strategy.
The meeting lasted eight hours, then three more hours the following day. The 372-page transcript revealed a Steinbrenner offering rambling answers, defensive postures, evasive tactics and one contradiction after another about why he paid Spira. Among those were that he felt Spira — a junior lightweight of a man — was a physical threat to his family, that he wanted Spira to stop harassing his friends and associates, that he wanted to protect friends such as Lou Piniella from damaging information that Spira was peddling and that he felt bad for Spira.
In his subsequent ruling, Vincent wrote: “In sum, Mr. Steinbrenner has offered multiple and conflicting explanations of his decision to give $40,000 to Mr. Spira, ranging from charity to extortion. … I am persuaded that neither extreme was at work here.”
In the transcript, Vincent often comes off as incredulous, mainly about why Steinbrenner never came to his office to seek help if he thought there were improprieties with Winfield’s foundation before paying Spira. Why pay a second installment when Spira did not deliver the proposed information on the first?
As Vincent remembers telling Steinbrenner, “You are a smart guy, you bought the Yankees. How do you fall for that line of baloney from this little schlepper from The Bronx?”
Over the next three weeks, Vincent took Dowd’s report, the transcript and Steinbrenner’s history of renegade behavior into account. Steinbrenner had purchased the Yankees in January 1973 and in less than two decades had been fined multiple times for both tampering and making disparaging remarks, and, most vitally, incurred a two-year suspension (reduced to 15 months) handed down by then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1974 for illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon.
At 9 a.m. on July 30 at his Midtown office, Vincent handed Steinbrenner his decision: a two-year suspension. Vincent recalled, “I was not going to throw him out of baseball. It was not a capital crime. It was a felony. It was not something I was going to execute him for.”
But Steinbrenner did not want his name associated with the word “suspension,” thinking it would damage his chance to retain his status as a U.S. Olympic Committee vice president. So he offered to be permanently banned like Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson, as long as someone in his family would not automatically be dismissed as his successor.
MLB was ready for this strategy and Vincent pulled out a document prepared by Greenberg covering that contingency. Over the next 10-plus hours, the sides haggled. But ultimately Steinbrenner signed an agreement in which he was banned from running the day-to-day operations of the Yankees, effective Aug. 20, and had to divest from owning 55 percent of the team to less than half of the franchise.
When Steinbrenner bought the team for $10 million from CBS in 1973, he famously said, “I won’t be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all.” He spent the next 17 ¹/₂ years defying that statement. But now Vincent was mandating it, noting Steinbrenner acted against the best interests of baseball, attempted to cover up his actions and participated in — from Vincent’s ruling — “a pattern of behavior that borders on the bizarre.”
Steinbrenner agreed in his termination document not to sue, and said upon leaving the commissioner’s office, “I’m very happy it was resolved. I’m very satisfied with the resolution.’’
Of course, this was George Steinbrenner. He was not happy. He was not satisfied. And he was definitely going to try to sue.
There were no cellphones. No internet. But there were enough transistor radios and word of mouth that in the fourth inning of what would become a 6-2 loss to the Tigers, Yankee fans spontaneously stood to cheer the revelation that Steinbrenner could — among other things — no longer hire or fire a manager. Analyst Tony Kubek, on the Yankee broadcast on MSG, said the organization should hold a “Howie Spira Day.” The team would fall to 39-61 that evening, the majors’ worst record. They were a laughingstock, inept at baseball with a slew of unprofessional players, all of it orchestrated by Steinbrenner — the most hated man in baseball.
Over the coming weeks, aware Steinbrenner covertly had weekly breakfasts with then-team president Gabe Paul during his initial suspension in the 1970s, Vincent imposed strictures on who could run the team. Initial talk that it would be Steinbrenner’s eldest son, Hank, quickly faded. Steinbrenner suggested his youngest son, Hal, might one day rise to the position, but he was just 21 and at Williams College, the alma mater of both Steinbrenner and Vincent.
Vincent rejected Yankees executive vice president and longtime Steinbrenner pal Leonard Kleinman, seeing that as an easy conduit to The Boss.
Ultimately, three lawsuits would be filed against the commissioner, including one by Kleinman. None was directly by Steinbrenner, but all were seemingly as his proxy. Steinbrenner would be suspended by the USOC despite his hopes of avoiding the word “suspension” in Vincent’s ruling.
With Steinbrenner unable to turn to a blood relative, the team’s limited partners on Aug. 15 voted unanimously to make limited partner Robert Nederlander of the famed Broadway family Steinbrenner’s successor — a milquetoast 180-degree turn from the bombastic Boss.
On Aug. 19, Steinbrenner gave out the first two-year managerial extension of his tenure to Stump Merrill, citing his work with youngsters such as Oscar Azocar, Jim Leyritz and Kevin Maas.
In his final act on his final day as managing general partner, Aug. 20, Steinbrenner announced a decision and then walked away from the podium into exile. The decision would feel in the moment as retread as when Joe Torre was named manager after the 1995 season. Yet, this last decision may have been Steinbrenner’s best.
The defeated heavyweight champ turned to a Stick.
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