Steinbrenner Doesn't Deserve Portfolio's Story

George Steinbrenner, the controversial owner of the New York Yankees, doesn't deserve Portfolio's shabby treatment.

A 5,500-word piece by Franz Lidz, "Baseball After the Boss," smacks of "gotcha" journalism. It purports to offer a high-minded discussion of what will happen to the Yankees' fortunes after Steinbrenner, 77, dies or sells the team or loses his power within the organization. The story is in Portfolio's September issue, which hits newsstands on Aug. 15.

Oh, sure, the story discusses finances — but Lidz's money shot is his description of an ailing man. Steinbrenner repeatedly says "Great to see ya!" to longtime friend Tom McEwen. McEwen had been ushered in to visit Steinbrenner at his Florida home, with Lidz in tow.

Lidz writes after the meeting: "'I'm shocked,' McEwen tells me. 'George doesn't even seem like the same person. I figured he might be in a bad way, but I never expected this.'"

Does that spooky scene sound melodramatic to you? All that's missing from it is a score by Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Hitchcock's favorite movie composer.

Portfolio's side

A representative of Conde Nast's Portfolio told me that Lidz was assigned to write about the future of the Yankees' franchise and he didn't ambush Steinbrenner. The party line is that Steinbrenner's publicist, Howard Rubenstein, rebuffed interview requests and forced Lidz to improvise.

Sorry, but I don't buy a word of Portfolio's argument. I'm accustomed to hearing this kind of thing from a self-righteous Fortune 500 company or government official.

Let's put it another way. How would Portfolio feel if Si Newhouse, the beloved father of Conde Nast, was in similar ill health and a nosy media reporter managed to worm his or her way into his house to get a cheap scoop? I believe that Lidz invaded Steinbrenner's privacy.

Easy target

It's unfortunate. Lidz, a talented journalist who excelled at Sports Illustrated, ruined an otherwise well-researched, interesting story.

Steinbrenner is a useful target. He's hated for signing lots of coveted free agents, going back to Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and Goose Gossage in the 1970s. He has built Major League Baseball's biggest payroll, at about $200 million.

Steinbrenner is bombastic and bullying. Oliver Platt depicts the Boss neatly in "The Bronx Is Burning," ESPN's rather bombastic miniseries on the Yankees' tumultuous 1977 championship season .(Come to think of it, Larry David's uncredited and hilarious impersonation of the bossy, tough-talking "Big Stein" on "Seinfeld" was pretty accurate, too.)

Mostly, though, baseball followers often resent Steinbrenner because he has been so successful. Since he took over the team in 1973, the Yankees have won six championships — more than any other baseball franchise.

It seems to me that Portfolio is, and should be angriest at the ever-protective Rubenstein. Fair enough; he got in the magazine's way. Portfolio should go after him.

Of course. Portfolio wouldn't be sending out press releases to trumpet an upcoming exposé on the likes of Howard Rubenstein.

Bad publicity

Portfolio can ill afford any bad publicity these days. It's already coming off a week to forget.

According to media accounts, Editor Joanne Lipman forced out her deputy, Jim Impoco, because of their inability to see eye to eye. It's bad timing when a high-ranking member of the news team exits only days before the publication of the magazine's second issue.

Portfolio editors declined to be interviewed for this column. Spokeswoman Perri Dorset begged off by saying an interview wouldn't help Portfolio in any way.

Fine. It's Portfolio's right to turn me down. Still, I can't help but see a certain irony at work here.

By denying a reporter's interview request, isn't Portfolio doing to me what it accuses Rubenstein of doing to Lidz?

Maybe I would come up with a juicy column if I finagled a way into Lipman's home and snooped around.

Be careful what you wish for

I criticized Portfolio's first issue extensively, calling it an unwieldy dud. I had hoped issue No. 2 would have more punch. See earlier column.

As I ponder Portfolio's third issue, this older and wiser observer mutters: Be careful what you wish for.

Is "gotcha!" going to be the name of the game when Portfolio profiles rich and powerful business celebrities? Who knows what scenarios could appear in print?

Maybe we'll see an in-depth look at how former Citigroup Inc. (C) head Sandy Weill slipped and fell while picking apples at his orchard in Connecticut. Perhaps it'll be the inside skinny on how ex-Bear Stearns Cos. (BSC) visionary Ace Greenberg deals from the bottom of the deck when he plays bridge with his Wall Street buddies.

I almost can't wait.