It has been a tough week for the Yankee faithful. First, legendary Stadium announcer Bob “the Voice of God” Sheppard passed over the weekend (I’ll always remember his wonderful palindromes: “Now batting, numbah 2, the shortstop, Derek Jee-tuh, the shortstop, numbah 2, now batting.”). And now the news that The Boss, George Steinbrenner, has died at age 80.
Throughout his reign as Yankees principal owner, Steinbrenner was feared, loathed, loved and respected all at once — a man who, above all, had to be reckoned with. Most people thought of him as tempestuous and prickly, an unsentimental hot-head who wanted nothing more and nothing less than to win, win, win at all costs. My memory of him is a little different.
It was March of 1996 and I was an eleven-year-old kid living amid the orange groves and cow pastures of central Florida. In Polk County, if you didn’t have the allowance money saved up, or the ride, to get to the theme-park corridor between Orlando and Tampa, the best thing you could do on a Saturday afternoon was watch baseball. The Cleveland Indians did their spring training in Winter Haven, where I lived, but I bled pinstripe. So whenever the Yanks were nearby my big brother Rob and I did what we could to catch the games. On this particular day we had tagged along with our neighbors the Webbs – who ran (and continue to run) a local citrus and fudge shop and who seemed to know just about everybody in the state — to Baseball City in Davenport, where the Kansas City Royals were taking on the Bombers.
We had good seats behind home plate — they probably cost five bucks — and it was Rob and I, Mr. Webb, and his kids R.J. and Ashley, who were a few years younger than us, all in a row. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth inning a gray-haired man in a white windbreaker ambled down the steps of our section and took an open seat next to us. Mr. Webb shook his hand and seemed happy to see him, and the two started talking about boring grown-up things. My brother and I didn’t think much of the geezer until we heard Webb refer to him as “Mr. Steinbrenner.”
We were just kids, but even then we knew that “Mr. Steinbrenner” (hell, even Derek Jeter called him that) was an awesome and frightful figure. And so we traded whispers and stole glances at his hands, where, sure enough, we saw World Series hardware. But we dared not address him. Only when Mr. Webb, seeing our excitement and our terror, introduced us to The Boss, did we find that he was. . . perfectly delightful.
Indeed, for several innings he patiently and kindly fielded a barrage of baseball questions from Rob and me — most centered on whether there was some way he could force Don Mattingly to reconsider his decision to retire the previous fall — before giving us a 50-dollar bill (fifty bucks!) and telling us to go buy ourselves some hot dogs and sodas and a ball for him to sign.
Reader, he even let us see his ring.
Most of the reputation-sealing events of Steinbrenner’s career — the Bronx Zoo and the love-hate bouts with Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson, the Reagan pardon, the Dave Winfield saga — happened before I was sapient. All I ever got from Mr. Steinbrenner was a Yankee dynasty, a signed baseball, and the best hot dog I’d ever tasted.
From left: my brother, yours truly (bowl cut, chub, and all), and Mr. Steinbrenner