FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.-- George Steinbrenner has been ghostbusted. wwwWHHHOOOOM! His spirit has been electrolyzed. Atomized. wwwWHHHOOOOM! There isn't a trace left of the big fussbucket with his fingers in everyone's food and his big nose all out of whack -- unless you consider the Yankees' sorry state, to which he was, and remains, the principal donor. But let's not miss the point. He is gone. You can't tell he was ever here.
This spring, the Yankees' camp is as mellow as a stack of The Captain and Tennille records. It's a terrible place for conspiracy theorists. You think it can't be true, that George must have some secret corridor to the inside, that this is the Yankees and New York and the Boss and the tabloids, there must be a secret password. There isn't. He's gone. His spirit has been Bossbusted. wwwHHHOOOOM!
What a shock to the system. No slamming doors. No meek, huddled foot soldiers gathering in the gloaming. No sudden ultimatums. No dirty politics. No jangling, menacing telephones. No management burlesque. No comic-serious lieutenants. No young, terrified babes in uniform. Just baseball. Just pitching and catching and running and throwing. Just a ball team warming up on green grass. No different from any other.
What a shock to the system. The Yankees are a team again. A lousy team, yes, but a team, not a carnival, no more or less foolish than the rest. Yes, Steinbrenner's piracy of the pinstripe soul will be felt for years; the rebuilding will be slow. But the bubbling gremlin is gone -- wwwWWWHHHOOOOM! -- on now to other private terrors. The starting over starts now.
What a shock to the system. You drive over to the stadium and in some ways it's just like it always was, a little piece of the Bronx set down in the heat of South Florida, the harsh, yo-buddy traffic cops (Were they airlifted down here, or what?) and the squawking, sunburned fans suitable for strangling. But beyond those initial barriers, matters are entirely different.
It's just so, well, it's just so darn serene. When George was around, there were always hysterical emergencies, panics, people getting fired and finding out from reporters, players emerging hollow-eyed and muttering from closed-door meetings. Steinbrenner presided from his box above the first-base stands, and he was always in a boil, bouncing around the little carpeted room like a pool ball off the felt banks of a table.
There was the day he fired an intern during a game because the kid's car was parked in the wrong place and George's close friend Donald Trump wanted to leave the game and had to wait a few minutes. Furious, George went down and let the air out of the kid's tires. The intern performed some minor function in the press box, and after a few innings everyone realized he hadn't been there in a while, and then word floated in that, well, he wasn't coming back.
Many were the days that George emerged from his box to rage about this or that player who wasn't living up to billing. "Well," he would chortle, "we've seen enough of that," and off the kid would go to Columbus. George never did understand the pace of spring training. He wanted the Yankees to win, as if it mattered, and was quick to make judgments when players often were shaking off winter's dust and experimenting with new pitches and stances.
His mood was always particularly brittle when the Yankees played the Mets. To him, the Mets were the enemy. He saw them as competition for the interest of New York's fans, and it drove him to a rattling paranoia, particularly when the Mets became winners. He went through periods when he refused to play because he didn't want to lose. When he would relent and agree to play, it was as if it were October, not March. Woe unto the Yank who committed an error against the Mets.
He did have a little Barnum in him that wasn't all bad -- one time down here he brought in an elephant to, ah, hurl out the first pitch with his trunk -- but mostly he just ran the most skittish, maddening, comic camp in baseball. Then he got involed with Howard Spira and the commissioner investigated and . . . wwwWWWHHHOOOOM!
It's a shock. George really doesn't have any input anymore. We know because the Yankees didn't sign Bo Jackson. They had first crack after the Royals released him, and George would have done it in a millisecond. He said so. Bo might be lame, but he would have bought days of back-page headlines, which is a good trade in George's book. The new Yankees didn't do it. They had the gall to check with some doctors and make a -- gasp -- rational decision.
It's true: The Yankees are almost rational now. Their spring camp has been quiet, workmanlike, with lots of young players in the lineup. George's box above the stands has been empty. The club's new managing general partner, Bob Nederlander, has barely been seen. The first time he showed up he got out of his car and reporters came up to him spewing out questions. Old habit. Nederlander looked at them curiously.
"Whaddya want to talk to me for?" he asked. "I don't play the games. Go talk to the players."