Opinion: Hank Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ Renaissance man, is gone far too early

He was the chip off the old boss.

New York Yankees co-owner Hank Steinbrenner was like his old man, George.

He was bombastic, just like his father. There was no filter, just like his father. You want his opinion, well, you better be not be afraid of the answer.

Maybe the baseball world wasn’t ready for Hank Steinbrenner, and he ultimately decided to silence himself, but for almost a year in 2008 when he was vocal, exercising his authority for everyone to hear, man was he fun to be around.

Hank Steinbrenner died early Tuesday morning in Clearwater, Florida, at the age of 63, after what the team called a "longstanding health issue."

It’s a shame Yankees fans never got a chance to know him better, because they would have absolutely loved him.

Hank Steinbrenner could play guitar, play the piano, had his own dragster and loved his horses. (Photo: Chris Pedota, USA TODAY NETWORK)

They knew all about the family patriarch, George, of course. He returned the Yankees to prominence, as one of the most powerful sports franchises in the world. They won six championships during George Steinbrenner’s reign, turning an $8 million investment into a $5 billion sports team, according to Forbes’ valuations.

They know Hal, the calmer, cerebral younger brother, who has been running the Yankees for the past 12 years, maintaining its prominence on the field, without ever betraying their business model.

But few knew Hank, or ever even got a glimpse of him.

He was the life of the party. The genuine article. He could play guitar. Play the piano. Had his own dragster on the hot-rod circuit. And loved his horses, breeding, raising and racing them.

Did we ever love hearing him talk.

"Hank was a Renaissance man," Yankees president Randy Levine told USA TODAY Sports. "You could talk to Hank and in one conversation go from baseball to rock n’ roll to culture to history, and he would hold his own.

"He was so incredibly smart. He was humble, very self-effacing, but not insecure. He knew who he was, and was comfortable in his own skin."

The New York Yankees mourn the passing of General Partner and Co-Chairperson Henry G. “Hank” Steinbrenner. pic.twitter.com/rL07EUHirS

I’ll always treasure the time I sat down with him for an hour in the quiet of his office at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, with Extra Strength Tylenol and a pack of cigarettes on his desk, a Fender Stratocaster guitar on the office floor. We talked about anything and everything on the eve of Steinbrenner flying out to see his first All-Star Game, the final one at old Yankee Stadium in 2008.

Steinbrenner kept insisting during our conversation that he wasn’t his father, and had much more patience, but the more he talked, the louder he got, the more he ridiculed the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, the more he sounded like his old man.

"People in baseball know it, whether they want to admit it or not," Steinbrenner told USA TODAY Sports that day, "it helps everyone when the Yankees are good. The Red Sox, whether they're good or not, doesn't necessarily matter, nationally.

"Let's face it: The Yankees are baseball history. You're talking about 26 championships."

It became 27 championships the following year.

"Hank could be direct and outspoken," the Yankees said in a statement, "but in the very same conversation show great tenderness and lightheartedness."

Hank, the oldest of the four Steinbrenner kids, really didn’t have that much initial interest in baseball. He would rather be with his horses, running the family farm during the day, soothing his soul with a smoke, a drink and music at night.

He loved telling the story when his dad took him to his first concert in Cleveland. He was 7 years old. He went to see the Beatles.

"At that time, my dad didn't understand rock 'n' roll," Steinbrenner says. "And he certainly didn't understand Beatlemania. The minute (George) Harrison backed up on stage, all hell broke loose. I'll never forget the look on my dad's face."

Steinbrenner, who became the voice of the Yankees when his dad’s health started to fail, decided after the 2008 season it would be best for his brother, Hal, to run the Yankees, becoming the managing general partner. He returned to the horse farm in Ocala, Florida. He still was involved with the Yankees, offering scouting advice on players, helping negotiate contracts, and being part of all major business decisions, but publicly went mute.

Gone were the days he lashed out at Alex Rodriguez for opting out of his Yankees contract: "Does he want to go in the Hall of Fame as a Yankee or a Toledo Mud Hen?"

Gone were the days he was critical of manager Joe Torre after his acrimonious departure: "Where was Joe's career in '95 when my dad hired him?"

Gone were the days he took jabs at the rival Red Sox: "Red Sox Nation? What a bunch of [expletive] that is. … Go anywhere in America, and you won't see Red Sox hats and jackets; you'll see Yankee hats and jackets. This is a Yankee country."

Just like that, serenity replaced turbulence in the Bronx.

Now, there is silence.

Henry G. "Hank" Steinbrenner is gone.

Much, much, too early.

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale.

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