It is not uncommon in professional sports for coaches or managers to call out one of their stars, challenging the player to increase his level of performance in dire times or lead a team on the brink of defeat to glorious triumph. Sometimes, this call to arms motivates an athlete to reach deep down and rise to the challenge. But there are other instances when the alleged inspirational message spawns a verbal sparring contest between boss and employee, and ends up being more of a fuss than a plus.

The latest flare-up of the sports world’s version of “Crossfire” came courtesy of the New York Yankees and their notoriously opinionated owner, George Steinbrenner. Just days into Spring Training, superstar shortstop Derek Jeter was forced to defend himself against stinging comments made by Steinbrenner regarding the team captain’s off-the-field behavior and overall team commitment.

Responding to a report in the New York Daily News that the 28-year-old was out partying until the wee hours of the morning on game days, Steinbrenner told the press last December that he was not pleased with Jeter’s behavior. “I won’t lie. That doesn’t sit well with me,” he said. “That was in violation of [Yankees manager, Torre] Joe’s curfew. That’s the focus I’m talking about.”

For a man who places so much importance on the concept of being totally focused on baseball, Steinbrenner sure has a funny way of showing it. By constantly going to the media as a first resort and refusing to mend team-related issues internally, Steinbrenner brings the public directly into New York Yankee affairs. As if the spotlight on Jeter and his teammates wasn’t already blinding enough, Steinbrenner’s senseless remarks add unwanted and unnecessary pressure to the stressful lifestyle of a professional baseball player in the Big Apple.

Verbally assaulting players is nothing new for Steinbrenner, who in his quarter century as owner of the Yankees has picked on such team leaders as Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly. But of all the players on the current Yankee roster that Steinbrenner could have fingered for disappointing play or detremental conduct this time, Jeter was least deserving.

A model citizen, perennial all-star and fan-favorite, the one thing Jeter prides himself on as a ballplayer is his stingy work ethic.

“I have no problems with people criticizing how I play. But it bothers me when people question my work ethic,” Jeter said earlier this week.

“That’s when you’re talking about my integrity. I take a lot of pride in how hard I work. I work extremely hard in the offseason. I work extremely hard during the season to win. My priorities are straight.”Mature veteran that he is, Jeter made sure to dissolve any controversy left over from the war of words, declaring to the media in a Monday afternoon press conference that he was irked with the tabloid for first breaking the story that falsely painted him as wild party animal, and not with The Boss himself.

One could argue that Steinbrenner’s raging desire to win makes no him no different than any other owner, in any pro sport. But unlike the men that run other organizations, Steinbrenner is simply unable and unwilling to stomach the thought of a non-championship campaign. And the fact that New York is now preparing to start its third season without a World Series title is enough to send Steinbrenner into a rhetorical frenzy, as he criticizes personnel left and right in hopes of shaking things up.

Perhaps this is also a way for Steinbrenner to deflect some of the flack he has received of late from baseball officials for being the only owner to vote against a labor agreement which included a luxury tax for teams whose payroll exceeds $117 million. The Yankees would be the only team in 2003 to incur the tax, boasting a monstrous payroll that is approaching $160 million.

With hundreds of Japanese media following around newly-acquired outfielder Hideki Matsui in addition to the regular circus of reporters chasing down Torre and veterans Bernie Williams, Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi, Alfonso Soriano, Mariano Rivera and David Wells, Tampa is certainly no vacation for the Yankees. Spring Training for the Bronx Bombers already resembles a scene from the Bronx Zoo, and the players do not need to deal with additional commotion from Steinbrenner.

In a sport where the best hitters fail seven out of 10 times at the plate, it is no coincidence that Steinbrenner’s perfectionist mentality out of the luxury box chronically clashes with his team’s performance on the diamond. A great deal of his erratic behavior over the years stems from this odd phobia of losing.

But this season, King George might benefit from taking a step back for a change, and letting his men ride into battle on their own terms.

Gerton can be reached at

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