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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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All eyes on Steinbrenner
Independence Day is also George Steinbrenner's 77th birthday. With questions arising about his health, we talk to many of the people whose lives the Yankee owner has affected.
By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
Published July 4, 2007
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (right) talks with New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner after the Yankees' victory parade for their 2000 World Series win. The Yankees defeated the New York Mets four-games-to-one to capture their third straight World Series Championship.
[Getty Images (2000)]
Shown at his desk in 1981, George M. Steinbrenner III, owner of the New York Yankees, is considered the most successful and perhaps influential executive in the game.
Everyone seems to have the Yankees' number lately - except for one double-digit that has extra special significance in the pinstriped universe.
Today marks the 77th birthday of owner George Steinbrenner, now in his 35th year running the most storied - and at times the most controversial - franchise in baseball. And "77" also harkens back 30 years to the memorable summer of 1977, when the Yankees won their first World Series championship under the Boss, powered by Reggie Jackson's home run heroics and the fiery managing of Billy Martin.
As it happens, ESPN is rolling out an eight-part miniseries, The Bronx is Burning - set against the backdrop of the tumultuous New York City summer of '77 and the team's dramatic title run - on Monday.
But right now, the only thing burning is reliever Scott Proctor's glove, uniform and spikes, which the struggling Yankee set ablaze last weekend after getting shelled in an 11-5 loss to Oakland.
This summer, the Bronx is fizzling.
The Yankees are two games below .500 and 11 behind AL East-leading Boston. Yet the bigger story entwines Steinbrenner - and his uncharacteristically low-profile amid his club's woes. Reports that he is in poor health these days have circulated increasingly, though nobody is talking.
His spokesman, Howard Rubenstein, has issued so many statements on George's behalf over the years he could be called Rubensteinbrenner. But he is doing so more than ever these days - with the exception of a brief Q&A published over the weekend by the New York Daily News. No mentions were made of his health, one way or the other. The topic became news in late 2003 when Steinbrenner fainted at Otto Graham's memorial service in Sarasota and again last year while attending his granddaughter's college play.
"All you get are rumors that his health is failing, which are fueled by the fact he's seldom seen in public anymore, " says veteran Daily News sportswriter Bill Madden, who has chronicled the team for years. "And when he is seen in public, he appears to be not nearly the old robust, dynamic George. Other than that, all we get is Howard Rubenstein's statements that everything is fine and that George is as feisty as ever."
It was Madden who reported in early June that Steinbrenner's 38-year-old son, Hal, "has quietly assumed the role of general partner of the Yankees in the past few weeks."
"My sources are telling me that Hal is taking a more leading role in the family operations but that older brother Hank is very much involved and most of the people I've talked to in New York tell me that Hank is really the baseball person, " Madden says from New York.
Hal had been overseeing the family's hotel business. He fills a void created when Steinbrenner's daughter, Jennifer, filed papers in March to divorce Steve Swindal, who had been viewed as a possible successor.
And what about George?
"The perception is at least that he's gone into much more of a background role, rather than someone in the forefront of every facet of the operation, " Madden says. "He's clearly delegated most of the baseball end of the Yankees to other people, and essentially just signs off on whatever they're doing. The old George would have been telling them what to do - and how to implement it."
Rubenstein turned down a Times' request to interview Steinbrenner, relaying word that he was focusing on the team. But whatever the case may be, we decided to talk to a sampling of people close to Steinbrenner or those who have simply watched him closely over the years. The dominant picture that emerges is of a man driven to win but very different from the bombastic persona for which he is so famous.
He may have been born on Independence Day, but Steinbrenner isn't only about fireworks. Nor is he only about firing workers.
To good friends, he has a big heart. To longtime observers, he has a big place in baseball history.
Regis Philbin TV personality
Popular talk-show host Regis Philbin, a quintessential New Yorker, is a Yankees fan and a good Steinbrenner pal to boot. Philbin took time out this week following an episode of Live With Regis and Kelly to relate a few thoughts - and a classic Steinbrenner story.
"A few years ago, the Yankees were in their first playoff game against Minnesota, which is always a tricky team in a short series. They were losing 3-1 in about the fifth inning. And George was sitting there in his suite, watching the game on a big screen. I was out just beyond the suite, looking at the game in person. I walked through the suite on my way to the bathroom and I thought, 'I'm gonna go over a cheer him up.' So I sat down and said, 'Hey, George, we're gonna come back, ' and all the encouraging things I could think of. Then I got him talking football, because that's what he loves, too. And the Yankees scored two runs."
So Philbin thought it was a good time to head off to his initial destination, the men's room.
"It was about the sixth inning and I said, 'Well, that's it George, ' and he goes, 'Oh no, no, you can't move.' I said, 'George I gotta go ...' 'No, you sit right here. You brought me luck. You tied the game. Now I want you to win it.' "
"Well, we go into extra innings and I'm dying. I AM DYING in that seat. I think it went up to 11 innings and they finally won, so I could go to the men's room. But that's George."
Philbin says there's a lesser-known, kind and generous side to Steinbrenner. "Here in New York he's involved in so many different charities that the public doesn't even know about, " Philbin says.
"I see him at the stadium all the time, " he adds. "He's one of my favorite guys in New York. I know the sports writers love to present that image of him hovering, waiting to fire people. But I think they're going to miss him terribly once he does leave the Yankees. He is just a guy who loves competition and loves to win."
Philbin's take on the Yankee mess? "I think George has been awfully nice with what's going on here in New York - which is a baffling mystery to everybody. He's being patient, saying, 'Okay, I gave it to you, and I'll see you through to the end.' He's giving people the space to operate. If they can do it, wonderful. If they can't, they understand, 'This is it.' "
Malio Iavorone Restaurant owner
When Malio Iavorone needed a heavy infusion of cash at one point for his old restaurant, the former Tampa fixture called Malio's Steakhouse, his most loyal customer came to the rescue. "George lent me a million-and-a-half dollars, " says Iavarone. "He bankrolled me and did it for like 2 1/2-percent interest, whatever the legal limit was. He didn't want to charge me anything. He fell in love with my restaurant, my family, my employees. He was like my Godfather."
Iavarone only paid interest and eventually repaid Steinbrenner when he sold Malio's in 2005, opening a new establishment, Malio's Prime. Iavarone will never forget how Steinbrenner had his own room, equipped with his own phone, at the old Malio's. He made sure Iavarone and his son, Derek, each got World Series rings when the Yankees won. "He was our guy, " he says. "In the summer he'd come in with an envelope that had a thousand bucks in it, and say, "Pass it out, I know things are slow." If he likes you, there are no limits."
Oliver Platt Actor
Oliver Platt, who portrays Steinbrenner in The Bronx is Burning, is a baseball fan, but his favorite teams are hardly high on the Boss' list: the Red Sox and the Mets. Still, Platt found that his strong allegiances to Boston allowed him to see Steinbrenner in a new light:
"I will tell you this, especially as a Red Sox fan, I gained an extraordinary amount of respect for him as I delved into his life and found out about him, " he said in a conference call. "As a Red Sox fan, it's very easy to be somewhat dismissive of Steinbrenner and think that the Yankees succeeded despite him. And the more research I did, I found out that precisely the inverse was true. And I ended up respecting him a great deal. He's an incredibly important figure in modern sports."
Bob Costas Sports commentator
The familiar voice of NBC baseball, who examines the world of sports on HBO's Costas Now, sees far more positive in Steinbrenner's scorecard than negative. "George has often been controversial and some of his actions have been rightly criticized, but on balance, he has been a dynamic and historic force in baseball and his tenure has been tremendously successful, " Costas told the Times. "Particular disagreements aside, I view him as one of the most significant owners in baseball history and a legitimate candidate for the Hall of Fame."
Dick Greco Former Tampa mayor
Two favorite stories come to mind when Dick Greco thinks of his old friend. Several years ago, he went to Steinbrenner's house with a friend to play the Boss and his special adviser, former FBI man Phil McNiff, in a friendly game of tennis. Greco, a decent player, knew that Steinbrenner had only taken up the sport three months earlier. "So I served it easy to him, and he noticed, " Greco says. "He stopped the game and said, 'What the hell are you doing?' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'Hit the ball as hard to me as you to do him!' I did, and I mean he ran after it like it was the end of the world. But George is like that. He's a competitor, that's all there is to it. Whatever he does, he wants to win at it."
Then there's the other facet to his personality. Greco recalls that when he had his problem with Metropolitan Bank (he was chairman when it failed in 1982), he received a phone call. "It was George and he said I want to take you to lunch, " Greco says. "I got there and he had two or three other friends of mine and he said, 'I just wanted to know how you're doin' pal.' He offered to do anything he could to help and said, 'Don't worry about that kind of stuff. People will understand.' That's the kind of guy he is. If you're fortunate to be his friend, he's a good friend. And he has soft side that he only allows his friends to see."
Joe Voskerichian Executive director of Gold Shield Foundation
Joe Voskerichian knows first-hand what Steinbrenner has achieved away from the ballpark. He runs the Gold Shield Foundation, which provides college scholarships to children and spouses of policemen and firemen killed in the line of duty. Steinbrenner founded it in 1981 and has helped the Gold Shield expand to seven counties beyond Hillsborough, plus MacDill Air Force Base.
Voskerichian also served as chairman of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay and praises Steinbrenner's ongoing generosity with the organization - including funding concerts, lining up celebrity speakers, and always making sure all members of the Yankees attend an annual event to sign autographs for the kids.
Then there's the Florida State Fair. Voskerichian has been on the Fair board for a decade and credits Steinbrenner with single-handedly putting the fair back on its feet during his chairmanship in the 1990s. He remembers Steinbrenner walking the grounds in his white Yankees jacket. "And if something wasn't done right, he would let them know, " Voskerichian says. "He made some strong demands and the fair came out of the doldrums and became very successful and we continue in that mode today."
Peter Golenbock Sports book author
"The Yankees are floundering right now and if this were 20 years ago, George would be standing in the owner's box, waving his fists, mouthing obscenities, calling Dave Winfield Mr. May, " says St. Petersburg sports book author Peter Golenbock, a Yankees historian, who wrote the definitive tale of the franchise in Dynasty (1975), The Bronx Zoo with Sparky Lyle (1979), Balls with Graig Nettles (1984), and Wild, High and Tight about manager Billy Martin (1994).
Golenbock, whose latest book is a novel about Mickey Mantle called 7, was doing research on Dynasty in 1972 when the team was still owned by CBS. "So I had become very close to all the people in the Yankees, " he recalls. "They were classy people, sophisticated, loved baseball to death. And basically, not very long after George came in (on Jan. 3, 1973), he fired them all."
Golenbock was never a fan of Steinbrenner's methods. But he doesn't argue with his results. He remembers how, during the advent of free agency, that Martin wanted Oakland's Joe Rudi. "They already had enough left-handers in the lineup, and Billy really liked Rudy because of his defensive ability, " he says. "Billy told George all of this, and George went out and got Reggie Jackson, left-handed hitter, couldn't field at all, was a pain in the butt. But George knew damn well that this was the guy who would put fannies in the seats. He was right."
And his legacy? Golenbock looks at the initial investment Steinbrenner’s group made ($10-million on Jan.3, 1973). “Thirty-four years later,’’ he says, “having that team worth approximately $1-billion, it’s very difficult to criticize him.’’
Ray Graves Former UF football coach
The fabled Florida Gators football coach from the 1960s spent 8-1/2 years working as vice president of public relations for Steinbrenner Enterprises. "My years with George were one of the most rewarding times in my life, giving away about $2-million a year and helping programs for youth and education, " he says. "He has meant so much to the youth to our area and state. And a lot of people never knew he was making the contributions. That's the way he wanted it."
Graves also saw his explosive side.
"My office was right next to his, so I could hear him when he lost his temper, " he says. "He didn't mind making enemies if he thought he was right. I decided to get George a little plaque he could put on his desk that said, 'I'll sue the bastards.' I think it's still on his desk. He's got a sense of humor."
Graves hears that Steinbrenner is slowing down: "He's not in too good health these days - that's what the people close to him say."
He remembers arranging some birthday bashes for Steinbrenner in the past. "I helped bring a band down from New York, one he could lead. He likes to lead a band. And the Fourth of July is a special treat for George. The Lord knew what he was doing giving him that birthday."
Jim Neader Sports agent
Jim Neader, a veteran sports agent from St. Petersburg, has moved in the upper echelon of contract negotiations and only has praise for the Yankee owner.
"They had great success before he got there, but I think his legacy is that he continued to push the envelope, " says Neader, who made his name early in his career representing the once stellar Dwight Gooden, before the former Mets ace tumbled from grace amid drug addiction and myriad problems. Neader also served as the agent for Gooden's cousin, Tigers slugger Gary Sheffield. Neader didn't represent the two Tampa Bay area stars during their years with the Yankees, but did have one player, Paul Zuvello, in the organization in the '80s
"If you analyze the Yankees, you see that they're baseball's most successful franchise over the years. But George built on the success of previous management teams, and didn't sit back and rest on the glory of the Yankees, make his money and get out of the way. He made sure they won not only at the box office but on the field. Everybody says they spend so much money, but they earn so much, too. You may not agree with his methods, but his tactics have proven successful."