Hank Steinbrenner’s Boss-like bluster marked vital Yankees turning point

Even as Hank Steinbrenner continued to channel his father and unload on the Red Sox or small market teams or Joe Torre, it was becoming more obvious as the 2008 season unspooled that the louder Steinbrenner son was not going to run the Yankees.

It was a vital pivot point in the history of the most important team in the majors. Not as mammoth as George buying the club from CBS in 1973. But substantial. George’s health had faded and so did his day-to-day involvement with the Yankees. One fork was to continue in his star-chasing blustery vein with Hank. The other path was Hal, who you would need a DNA kit to prove was even George’s son, such was his reserve at that point.

And if you were a betting man in, say, 2007, you probably would have dropped a sizable wager on Hank. It is not just that he was so much like his dad. It was that he so clearly loved baseball. He could rattle off players from other teams and their roles and why the Yankees had to either imitate what was being done or run away from it. It was tricky, with Hal, just getting words, much less controversy. Hal was co-running the team with his brother more out of a sense of family responsibility than passion.

But Hal prevailed. His steadiness, vision and growing ardor for the job and baseball moved the family — including Hank — to agree by the winter of 2008 that Hal would be named managing general partner, the role his father had (albeit for a few suspensions) for 3 ¹/₂  decades.

When Hank died Tuesday morning at age 63 from what the Yankees said in a statement was a battle with a “longstanding health issue,” he still had the title as a “general partner” — same as his sisters, Jennifer and Jessica — and “co-chairperson” with Hal. But it had been well over a decade that there was any sense of Hank as more than a background figure. The Yankees had gone down the Hal path.

None of it seemed pre-ordained. When George was suspended in 1990 for what was supposed to be life by then-commissioner Fay Vincent for conspiring with a reputed gambler to get dirt on Dave Winfield, The Boss had spoken of letting the much younger versions of Hank and Hal take control. But he picked a son-in-law, Joe Molloy. And another son-in-law, Steve Swindal, was earmarked in the new century before a divorce from Jenny ended that.

Hal Steinbrenner; Hank Steinbrenner; George SteinbrennerCharles Wenzelberg, Dennis A. Clark, AP

Anyway, George had been like Hyman Roth, he talked insistently of “letting the young elephants in the tent” — his way of saying getting family more involved as he aged. But he thought he would live and rule the Yankees forever. But beginning in about 2003, George’s health began to deteriorate. In November 2005, he re-signed Brian Cashman and gave him greater powers than any previous GM during the Boss’ tenure to run the baseball operations as he saw fit. And by 2007, there was Hank front and center. The quote machine to his brother’s mime act.

Hank really liked the attention at first. He would make sometimes daily proclamations, was quick to answer a phone call, was unfiltered. He would ask you to join him outside, say, Steinbrenner Field so he could smoke a cigarette and chat. Like his dad, he loved the Yankee brand and mega-stars and was instrumental in the decisions after the 2007 season to retain Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera on long-term contracts and lure Alex Rodriguez back in on a then-record 10-year, $275 million pact. By then Hank had been part of the cabal that ended Torre’s 12-year, 12-playoff appearance tenure in favor of Joe Girardi — Hank laying into Torre for, among other things, not being thankful enough to his father for pulling him from managerial failure to the Yankees.

Comments like that, however — which failed, for example, to note how much Torre had done for the Yankee brand — created a backlash. It was a backlash that George was quite familiar with from his 30-plus years of theatrics and pyrotechnics. But Hank was not George in all ways. George hated negative press. But he had learned to deal with it, fire back or go even more over the top. Hank was more sensitive to it all.

Hank also had centered his life in Florida. In 2008, despite seeming the front man, he was not around The Bronx often. When a frail George Steinbrenner was driven to the mound in a golf cart at the All-Star Game sobbing amid a standing ovation, it was Hal besides him. Not Hank. And word began to trickle out that it was a metaphor for what was occurring behind the scenes. That while Hank was serving up the quotes, Hal was overseeing the day-to-day operations of the club.

Hal had an MBA and was an avid pilot. The idea of plowing through spreadsheets or plotting a long-range course fit his personality. He didn’t mind the background. It allowed him to mostly stay away from observation and criticism. So the Yankees veered down this path, taking on more of Hal’s patience and ability to see that star chasing was popular, but might lead to a barren farm system and an overstuffed, inflexible payroll.

Hank grew wearier of an out-front role with the Yankees. The bombastic comments and the return phone calls became fewer and fewer. The Yanks — very much in the George style — signed A.J. Burnett, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira that offseason, opened the new stadium in 2009 and won the World Series in the months before George Steinbrenner died.

By then, his successor was obvious. Hal more and more ran the Yankees, and the Yankees more and more pivoted to his quieter tones. Hank was rooted in Florida to help run the horse farm, to eventually get involved in car racing with his son, George Michael Steinbrenner IV, and help start Hank’s Yanks, a competitive youth travel baseball team. Occasionally you might spot Hank at Steinbrenner Field during Yankee spring training. But it was fleeting.

His name might be invoked by fans who longed for the Yankees to chase every big free agent and believed Hank would have followed the myth now established about his old man, that he would star chase regardless of cost. But at the pivot point more than a decade ago, the Yanks turned to Hal, moved to quieter, less bombastic, less quotable.

And then Hank grew publicly quiet as well.