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George Steinbrenner: Why The Boss was notorious in Japan

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Chris O'Meara/AP/File

(Read caption) This February 2003 file photo shows New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner waving to fans in Tampa, Fla. Mr. Steinbrenner 'was well known in Japan.'

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George Steinbrenner rarely held back an opinion, and The Boss made no friends in Japan with his disparaging comments over the years toward some of Japan’s greatest baseball players.

Baseball is Japan’s most popular sport, and at least three Japanese players passed through the Yankees under Mr. Steinbrenner’s glaring eye.

George Steinbrenner was well known in Japan,” says Robert Whiting, a longtime follower of Japanese baseball and author of “The Chrysanthemum and the Bat: The Game Japanese Play” and “Slugging It Out In Japan: An American Major Leaguer in the Tokyo Outfield.”

IN PICTURES: George Steinbrenner through the years

But many Japanese still feel slighted by Steinbrenner’s disparaging comments toward Hideki Irabu, who won two World Series rings while playing for the Yankees from 1997 through 1999. Steinbrenner publicly expressed disgust at his weight, at one point calling him a fat toad.

More recently, Hideki Matsui played for the Yankees from 2003 to 2009. Matsui struggled early on, leading to Steinbrenner's remark: "He is not what we expected." It made headlines in all the Japanese sports papers.

Then, last fall, Steinbrenner opted not to re-sign Japan’s beloved slugger despite him winning the 2009 World Series Most Valuable Player Award. Both actions earned Steinbrenner animosity in Japan.

“Steinbrenner was viewed as a character and a powerful man, but he is also remembered in Japan as the guy who allowed [Yankees executive] Brian Cashman to dump World Series MVP Hideki Matsui last year. Ingrate,” says Whiting. “So as a result, the popularity of the Yankees had dropped in Japan.”

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But Japan isn’t a stranger to the iron fist.

The island actually has its own version of The Boss.

Steinbrenner was considered alter ego of Tsuneo Watanabe, who owns the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper and the Yomiuri Giants, Japan’s most popular baseball team. "Both men have similar personalities,” says Whiting.

The parallels between owners are striking.

“Both are martinets. Both come from different fields. Both knew very little about baseball, both ruled their teams with an iron hand, both used big money contracts to lure stars from other teams, both fired employees at whim, both arrogant,” says Whiting.

In an ironic coincidence, he points out, Hideki Matsui played for Watanabe’s Giants before playing for Steinbrenner’s Yankees.

Meanwhile, in one of the world’s few other baseball-loving countries, the passing of baseball’s larger-than-life team owner will go relatively unnoticed.

“Cubans inside the island have no idea who Mr. Steinbrenner was,” says the operator of the blog Cuban Ball Players. “The government censors almost everything.”

IN PICTURES: George Steinbrenner through the years

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