A batboy's touching tale
Ray Negron's life goes from troublesome to success.
By MARC TOPKIN
Published January 13, 2007
At 16, Ray Negron was a troublemaker with a shaky future who got caught spray-painting graffiti outside Yankee Stadium. Now 51, the longtime St. Petersburg resident is an executive with the New York Yankees and the author of a hot-selling children's book - The Boy of Steel - that is raising funds for cancer research. Through his work as a special assistant to Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner, Negron has had insiders' access to the Yankees organization - working closely with such controversial personalities as Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson, Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry - and an implicit understanding of how much the team can mean to young fans. The book tells the touching story of a young cancer patient who gets to be a Yankees batboy and meet some of the team's stars - past and present - during a magical, time-bending visit to Yankee Stadium.
Negron has taken hundreds of children on such real-life tours and accompanied players such as Ruben Sierra and Robinson Cano on visits to hospitals. His main character is named for 6-year-old fan Michael Steele Wilkins, who never made it to New York before succumbing to brain cancer.
The book (available online at theboyofsteel.com and Barnes & Noble) has ranked as high as second on the New York Times best-seller list for children's books, and there are deals in place to produce a cartoon TV special and DVD, stage a play and develop a feature-length movie. And there is a sequel in the works.
Negron, who briefly played minor-league ball, has made hundreds of appearances at schools and hospitals in support of the book, the proceeds of which benefit cancer research and education through donations to several hospitals and organizations and some youth programs. He has been invited to present the book at the baseball Hall of Fame.
Negron discussed the project and his background with Times baseball writer Marc Topkin. Here are excerpts:
How did you first become involved with Steinbrenner?
In 1973, there were two brothers and two cousins doing graffiti on an outside wall at Yankee Stadium. One of the brothers yells, "Look out!" and starts to run. I turn real quick and some guy grabs me by the collar. The next thing I know I'm in a holding cell at the stadium. A little while later the guy who grabbed me comes back and says, "Give me the kid." Next thing I know I'm in the Yankee locker room, they hand me a uniform and make me a batboy. He told me, "You can keep this job as long as I know you're behaving yourself and doing good in school." And from that point on he always checked.
What led you to write the book?
Because of the way George Steinbrenner gave me a chance, I've always said I'd do the right thing for the less privileged and in situations where someone needed a hand. The Boss has always been that way and I've always done it. I went with Ruben Sierra to a hospital and, seeing him talk to the kids, it always stuck with me how it really makes kids feel. To watch the Pride of the Yankees, and to see Lou Gehrig - well, Gary Cooper - having that moment with the kid, it always stayed with me. It's something I wanted the world to see the beauty of.
How much was Michael Steele Wilkins an inspiration?
He is one of 200 kids I've had some form of relationship with. Unfortunately, he didn't make it. In essence, the book is not about him, but about all the kids. If he is one of 200, the book is more about the 199 who made it. But he was a fighter.
Did Steinbrenner like the book?
You always want the Boss' approval. I want him to be proud of me. That's important to me. Anyone who works for the Yankees wants the Boss to be proud. After I wrote it, I showed it to a million people, friends, teachers, everyone. Then it was time to show it to the person that counted the most. He was in New York and he was going back the next day, so I gave it to his son-in-law, I told him all about the book, and that I needed the Boss' approval. I gave him the book and asked him to do me a favor: wait until you're 36,000 feet in the air and then give it to him. I was sweating the whole 2 1/2 hours of that flight, but when they landed I talked to the Boss and he said he loved it. It was probably the third-happiest moment in my life, after the first time he took me into Yankee Stadium and my kids being born.
You've spent more than 20 years with the Yankees, and you've gone to other jobs, and other teams, and come back several times. What's it really like to work for Steinbrenner?
There's nothing like working for the Boss. He is the most exciting and most dynamic. He's as demanding as people say, no question about. I learned at a very early age that you don't take it personally. He always wants to win for his fans - that's THE most important thing. If you follow the orders he gives you, you're always okay. Part of who I am and what I am is because of him. In that sense, I'll always take a bullet for him. He can be tough. There's no one tougher in the game. But there is no one stronger, either.