Apparently, George Steinbrenner had a massive heart attack and died in his Florida home this morning. I’ve always had a like/hate feeling about Steinbrenner. He did some unforgivable things. His greatest sin, from a fan’s point of view, was his treatment of Dave Winfield. There isn’t a better person in baseball than Dave Winfield. He was an outstanding player of the Yankees in the 1980’s, reaching the All-Star game every year that he played with the franchise. But he was a philanthropist from the beginning of his career.

In 1973, his first year with the Padres, he began buying blocks of tickets to Padres games for families who couldn’t afford to go to games, in a program known as “pavilions.” Winfield then added health clinics to the equation, by partnering with San Diego’s Scripps Clinic who had a mobile clinic which was brought into the stadium parking lot…

…In his hometown of St. Paul, he began a scholarship program (which continues to this day). In 1977, he organized his efforts into an official 501(c)(3) charitable organization, known as the David M. Winfield Foundation for Underprivileged Youth, the first active athlete to do so.

As his salary increased, Foundation programs expanded to include holiday dinner giveaways and national scholarships. In 1978, San Diego hosted the All-Star game, and Winfield bought his usual block of pavilion tickets. Winfield then went on a local radio station and inadvertently invited “all the kids of San Diego” to attend. To accommodate the unexpected crowd, the Foundation brought the kids into batting practice. The All-Star open-practice has since been adopted by Major League Baseball and continues to this day.

When Winfield joined the New York Yankees, he set aside $3 million of his contract for the Winfield Foundation. He funded The Dave Winfield Nutrition Center at Hackensack University Medical Center near his Teaneck, New Jersey home. The Foundation also partnered with Merck Pharmaceuticals and created an internationally acclaimed bilingual substance abuse prevention program called “Turn it Around”.

He set aside $3 million of his contract to help hungry kids, those without health insurance, and people with substance abuse problems. But Steinbrenner wouldn’t honor his contract and pay the full amount.

Winfield has seldom felt good playing for Steinbrenner, especially after the principal owner tried to renege on the Yankees’ $300,000 commitment to the Winfield Foundation.

In the book, Winfield remembered a 1982 conversation about the foundation money in Steinbrenner’s trailer-office outside Fort Lauderdale Stadium at spring training.

” ‘Look,’ I say, finally gaining an audience with him,” Winfield writes. ” ‘Let’s get together and settle this. . . .’ but George waves me off, he has the Governor of Florida on the line. When he finally hangs up I ask him, ‘Why don’t you pay the money?’ ” ‘I’m not going to pay,’ he snaps like a spiteful kid. ” ‘I don’t get it.’ ” ‘That’s just the way it goes.’ ” ‘The way it goes?’

” ‘Yep.’ George turns back to the phone. Our meeting is over. I walk out furious, not caring if I ever play another inning of Yankee baseball. From that moment on I’m committed to only one thing – making George keep his part of the bargain.”

Winfield eventually obtained a court order forcing Steinbrenner to fulfill the $300,000 commitment.

”I wasn’t sure then, and I’m still not, what his gripe is with me,” Winfield writes. ”Part of it is, I think, as a frustrated athlete, George wants to ‘own’ his players, wants them up on their flippers barking for fish like trained seals. And from the beginning, I refused to bark.”

When Winfield decided to sue his boss, things got ugly.

Back in the 1980s, [Howie] Spira, now 50, was an unpaid publicist for Winfield and his charity, the Dave Winfield Foundation, as well as a lousy gambler who owed $100,000 to Mafia-connected bookies. He also owed money to Winfield: He had borrowed $15,000 from the player, who Spira says charged him outrageously usurious interest rates.

Spira figured out a way to solve all his problems at once. In 1986, he approached Steinbrenner and said he wanted $150,000, a job with his shipping company and a room in his Tampa hotel. In return, Spira told the Yankee owner that he could give him proof that Winfield had been squandering his foundation’s money on trysts with girlfriends.

Eager for any dirt he could throw on Winfield, Steinbrenner paid Spira $40,000 (their arrangement was first reported in March of 1990 by the Daily News). Spira says he hectored Steinbrenner to fulfill the rest of their deal, but Steinbrenner called his repeated phone calls extortion.

According to Spira, the Yankee owner sicced his friends from the Tampa FBI office on the gambler from the Bronx. Spira wound up serving 22 months in federal prison for extortion.

When baseball commissioner Fay Vincent found out about the deal Steinbrenner made with Spira, he suspended him from all baseball operations for 30 months. They turned out to be the critical months when general manager Gene ‘Stick’ Michael (freed from Steinbrenner’s constant meddling) was able to put together the team that would go on to win four world championships over the next ten years.

For a baseball-loving boy growing up in the New York suburbs in the 1980s, the only thing worse than treating Dave Winfield this way would have been to do it to Don Mattingly. I hated Steinbrenner with a passion.

But eventually the long slump after 1978 came to an end. People think Yankee fans are spoiled and we are. But the Yankees won championships when I was seven and eight years-old (the years just prior my little league career) and didn’t win another one until I was 27 years-old (long after my playing career was over). When I was playing baseball, the Yankees weren’t winning, and a huge part of the reason why was that the owner was an aggressive meddling jerk. Yet, he spent the money to bring in the best players and, more importantly, he ran the business extremely well. He bought the Yankees for $8.8 million in 1973. The franchise is now worth a billion. Because of his success, he was able to assure that the Yankees always have the first crack at a free agent and that they don’t have to worry about losing their star players because they can’t afford to pay them. I don’t think the rules of baseball are fair and there should be some form of salary cap to equalize things. But it’s been good to be a Yankees fan, and a big part of the reason is that Steinbrenner knew how to market the team and how to work with the city and the networks to be get the best deals.

I’ll never be fond of George Steinbrenner, but I did mellow on him in his later years. He mellowed, too.

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