But they knew, even as Steinbrenner watched on television from his Tampa home, that they were winning for him. Playing in the billion-dollar cathedral that wears Steinbrenner's fingerprints down to the most minute detail, the mission statement was never more clear.
"It was extremely important," said Andy Pettitte, the winning pitcher in the Fall Classic's clinching game, on Nov. 4. "Obviously, I don't think we were thinking that ... he wouldn't be seeing us be able to finish this year off.
"But just to be able to win that championship, the first year of the stadium ... Obviously, that stadium is there because of him. It was a thrill for us. I think all of us were kind of like, 'Let's do this for Mr. Steinbrenner, and let's do this for the fans.' It's what was driving us."
That stadium was appropriately dark a coast away on a gloomy Tuesday in New York, as the Yankees' All-Stars prepared to take the field at Angel Stadium for the annual Midsummer Classic.
Outside the building, an electronic display board was lit with Steinbrenner's photograph and the dates "1930-2010" under his name. But his swirling signature is all over the hulking facility at 161st Street and River Avenue in the form of concrete and steel.
"It was his vision to create that," said outfielder Nick Swisher. "It's kind of funny -- the first year the old Yankee Stadium was built [in 1923], the championship was won, and the first year of the new Yankee Stadium, we won a championship.
"To be able to get that for him, now, looking back, it was a very special time for everybody and very emotional."
Swisher did not know Steinbrenner as well as some of the other Yankees, though he'd heard rumors. When Steinbrenner dropped by Tropicana Field last September, Swisher ducked in for a postgame shave before meeting the Boss, just to make sure.
Alex Rodriguez can vouch for Steinbrenner's passion for victory. In 2004, shortly after being traded to the Yankees in a mega-deal, A-Rod had a note hand-delivered to him from a clubhouse employee, with Steinbrenner's initials marked on the envelope.
"At that point I got a little nervous. It said, 'From G.M.S.,' " Rodriguez said. "I still have this note. In the end, he basically said, "I'M COUNTING ON YOU!" with capital letters and an exclamation point. So I think, to this day, we are still playing for him."
Steinbrenner began to back away from the day-to-day operation of the Yankees in 2007, ceding control to his sons, Hank and Hal.
And though he might not have been the ideal owner to manage for, he loved the idea of forging relationships with his players. Especially in his younger years, Steinbrenner relished a hands-on approach in the clubhouse, marching in and speaking to players face to face.
"He was tough, but he was an encourager," Pettitte said. "George used to hand me Bible verses before some of my playoff starts and stuff like that. He was tough, but he was always there to support you. It was tough support, so I think sometimes the tough support doesn't get quite the limelight.
"You know, he expected a lot. He demanded a lot. He raised the level of not only the Yankees organization and what they want to do as far as winning and winning championships, [but] he's raised the bar around baseball for other teams to try to keep up and to compete with what he was trying to put on this field every year."
There was a softer side to Steinbrenner as well. Manager Joe Girardi remembers one of his first encounters with Steinbrenner, when the then-catcher and his wife, Kim, were walking their tiny dog on the plush, manicured Spring Training fields in Tampa in 1996, after he'd joined the team.
"I thought, 'Oh, boy, he's going to let my wife and I have it,' " Girardi said. "He sat and talked to us and asked about the dog, and it was a totally different expectation than what I had.
"I think that was the first time I saw that he wasn't everything he was painted to be. There was a gentle side to this man. But I have to tell you, one of his athletes walking a little white dog, I was expecting something totally different."
Girardi also learned in 1996 that the glory of winning didn't last long for Steinbrenner.
"I think winning the World Series meant a lot to him, but the next day he was back at work," Girardi said. "He was like, 'OK, how are we going to win next year?'
"We won in 1996, and we were told that he was already planning for 1997 when they were planning the parade. I think he truly loved it and probably felt that it was a huge accomplishment, but he never rested in it."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.