Steinbrenner Syndrome: The New York Sports Sickness

Fans are infected with Steinbrenner Syndrome, but are city athletes the ones truly at risk?

I first recognized it on Dec. 14, 2009, though I didn’t know its name then.

The news broke that Hideki Matsui—the George Harrison of the Yankees, the quiet, stoic performer, and the 2009 World Series MVP—wouldn’t play for New York the following season. The Yankees told Mr. Matsui’s agent that he wasn’t a priority, so Matsui took a one-year, $6.5 M. contract with the Anaheim Angels.

The same team who gave Carl “Ass Injury” Pavano a $40 M. contract (for which he earned $17,646 per pitch, having thrown in only 26 Yankees games) not four years before let Matsui go, just one month after he was named the MVP of the World Series he’d helped the team win. Even now, when I speak with fellow Yankees fans about this travesty, they just shake their heads and shrug, as if to say: Yeah, we know. What’re you gonna do?*

It was a classic, symptomatic moment of Steinbrenner syndrome, a disease characterized by short attention span, poor memory and fits of ecstasy followed by angry outbursts. It affects nine out of 10 New York sports fans (and 10 out of 10 New York sports editors). Its only treatment is frequent, intense doses of winning.

The day after the Yankees won the 2009 World Series, I remember the first conversation I heard on the matter: “Yeah, next season’s gonna be great.” For Steinbrenner sufferers, victory, while unmistakably rewarding, is also brief. In New York, you’re only as substantial as your last championship, even a few weeks later.

Consider two recent case studies of the pattern: the Giants won the Super Bowl not three years ago, in 2008. Former Giants player Tiki Barber essentially called for Coughlin to be fired in 2010. In November 2011, the New York Daily News wondered if Coughlin wasn’t done.

The Knicks have made two playoff appearances in the past 10 years. For other American cities, this would be acceptable. For New Yorkers, it simply isn’t enough.

Right now, thankfully, the illness is in remission, thanks to the cocktail of the Giants improbable Super Bowl (20-1 odds at the season’s beginning) and the even more unlikely emergence of Jeremy Lin as an on-court sensation. But as with any chronic disease, there is always the danger of relapse.

A few months ago, journalist, author and Kean University sports history professor Terry Golway was listening to Giants fans chime in on a sports talk radio program. They were demanding New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin be given the ax.

“What is it about New York sports fans,” Mr. Golway laughed, “that they would demand a guy like Coughlin, who’s obviously been pretty successful even before last January, get fired? What is it about them?! There were no losing seasons involved, but, you know, they missed the playoffs three years in a row and that’s a cause to fire a coach?”

Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher, he noted, “made the playoffs a few times, made the Super Bowl, but obviously the expectations in New York are different.”

Another example can be found in quarterback Mark Sanchez. “At this point in Eli Manning’s career, it looked like he was going to be a bust,” Mr. Golway continued. “Sanchez lead his team to the AFC championship his first two years. Joe Namath didn’t. Eli Manning didn’t. Peyton Manning didn’t.”

And it’s not just civilians who are affected by the malady: even fellow Jets players ripped Mark Sanchez to the New York Daily News.

Despite what the rest of America might think (that we’ve always been like this), Mr. Golway is quick to point out that in a historical context, the pervasiveness of this mentality is a fairly new concept. He cited the classic New York sports fan as a Brooklyn Dodgers supporter, whose mantra—”wait ’til next year”—is maybe one nowadays only adopted by Mets followers like himself.

“I hate to say it, because it sounds like such a cliché, but New York has been corrupted by George Steinbrenner. It’s that simple. This mentality is very much part of what Steinbrenner brought to the Yankees in the ’70s. And now,” he sighed, “it has infiltrated all of New York sports.”

(Exacerbating the symptoms, of course, is the multitudinous nature of New York City—there are simply more distractions. What is there to do in Buffalo besides watch the Bills or the Sabers, and eat wings?)

While it is primarily the fans who come down with Steinbrenner syndrome, its true victims may be the athletes.

In December, Dallas Mavericks center Tyson Chandler decamped for New York City, leaving behind both Dallas and the 2011 NBA championship team he just played on with it. It’s not an obvious career move: Leaving a championship team in a thriving market that’s slightly more forgiving than our own, for a team with two marquee stars vying for attention in the most vicious media climate in the country.

“I was happy for Ty,” explained Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who was careful to note that New York City is a “great sports town,” before going on to explain just how it’s a “unique market.” (This last might as well have been a euphemism for “shitstorm gauntlet.”)

Steinbrenner Syndrome: The New York Sports Sickness