I was at work when I first saw the news on my Google Reader. George had a massive heart attack and was in critical condition. 5 minutes later, I was getting the news that he'd died.
I turned to my co-workers and said "George is dead." Half of them - the ones who were not Yankee fans - said, "George who?" They thought I meant a work colleague, or maybe an actor. But my fellow fans needed no clarification. GEORGE was dead. There was only one George who needed no last name.
I was born in California, but moved to Connecticut at a very young age. It's a divided state, with half the fans supporting the Yankees, and the other half being Red Sox fans. (Theoretically there must be Met fans too, but in Connecticut, there are those two teams and all the others as 'and the rest'. Liking the Mets here is the same as liking, say, the Pirates.) I was a Yankee fan for as long as I can remember. I still am.
I was, admittedly, born at the right time. I was first conscious of baseball when I was about 3-4 years old, which was right when the Yankees were winning pennants again. The Yankees of 1976-1978 may not have been the nicest guys in the world, but they brought the World Series back to the Bronx after a huge, huge drought. And the reason they did this was that George owned the Yankees, and he wanted to win. More than ANYTHING, he wanted to win.
When I was 6 years old, the book The Bronx Zoo came out, written by Sparky Lyle. It was a diary of the 1978 season, one of the most contentious in Yankee history. It pulled no punches, telling exactly what the players, coaches, and especially manager and owner were like. I read this book when I was 6. You could probably argue I should not have been reading a book with such language, but generally I would read literally anything and as long as I could, I did. I seem to recall my mom wincing as I quoted various swear words to her. (Likely the same thing happened when I read Ball Four when I was 7.)
And easily the most fascinating things about the book were Billy Martin and George. Two people who could barely stand to be in the same room with each other, fought constantly, disagreed on everything... except winning. And this was instilled into the Yankees. YOU. WILL. WIN. It hit their fans, too. I've always felt, regarding Yankee games, the way George did. My favorites are the ones where we score 10 runs in the first and then slowly pull away.
Not that this was easy. Being a Yankee fan in the 1980s was very difficult. George kept buying expensive veterans. They kept underperforming. George would trade away quality rookies in a fit of pique. It's no coincidence that the two times the Yankees returned to form were also right after the two times George was suspended from the game.
So I think George was a bad hands-on owner. But, he was a terrific force of nature. George was the Yankees, from 1973-2007. Not Reggie, not Don, not even Derek. The Yankees were George. The sheer pride in the franchise was one fostered by George. Yes, rival teams said that the Yankees bought their championships. Damn straight. George poured money into the team. There's a reason that even more than Boston, Yankee fans hate the Kansas City Royals. They are the anti-Yankees. Their owner wants a profit first, and then perhaps a good club.
George had not been well for years, and his death is not a complete surprise. Likewise, the Yankees are now being run by his sons. But the legacy has only just begun. I'm seeing a lot of stories mentioning George's philanthropy, where he would give money to needy people quietly and with zero publicity. Which is a wonderful thing, and should be remembered. But what will be remembered more than anything is the larger than life, most famous owner in baseball. The man who fired Billy Martin 5 times. The man who created the Evil Empire. And the man who made the Yankees, once the most storied franchise in baseball, add on to that with even more stories, and even more championships.
On the day he died, the Yankees were World Champions, and owned the best record in baseball. I think George would be proud. And then tell the team it means nothing unless they win this year. :)