His own boss

After years of keeping his distance from baseball, Hank Steinbrenner is making himself comfortable as the man in charge of the Yankees.

By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
Published December 16, 2007

TAMPA - He crafted his own career and life on 800 acres of gently rolling Ocala horse country, far from the massive shadow cast by his famous father. In so doing, Hank Steinbrenner opted to live away from the glare for much of the past two decades, coming up through the family farm system as a master at matching thoroughbred bloodlines and breeding champions.

Now the oldest child and son of George Steinbrenner - aging owner of the New York Yankees who made bombast and intimidation his trademark style as the Boss - is starting to cast a distinctive shadow of his own.

He has become the face and voice of the storied baseball franchise, a man who stepped into the Yankee spotlight two months ago during the awkward departure of popular manager Joe Torre, and has owned it ever since.

Working from his office at Legends Field off Dale Mabry Highway, Son No. 1 has generated a string of splashy Big Apple headlines - shelling out megamillions to bring a contrite Alex Rodriguez back into the pinstriped fold, opening his wallet to keep veteran catcher Jorge Posada and closer Mariano Rivera from leaving town, then boldly issuing a deadline and refusing so far to deal for Minnesota left-hander Johan Santana in exchange for valuable young talent.

Introducing the New York Hanks - a team taking shape for 2008 with a mix of solid old hands and promising farm products like himself.

For the record, Hank, 50, shares the role of running the club with younger brother Hal, conferring as coequal bosses on all decisions while keeping their father informed. But at age 77, Steinbrenner clearly has stepped back, leaving his two sons in charge of different phases of the operation.

Hal, who spent his formative years running the family's hotel interests, is focusing his energy on the construction of a new Yankee Stadium, set to open in 2009. Hank, meanwhile, has followed the lead of his dad, calling all the shots for the baseball team - and calling them, it seems, with the same off-the-cuff bravado for which his father was legendary.

"Maybe at times I'll shoot from the hip too much," says Hank with a deep, deliberate voice that contrasts to his father's faster, clipped delivery. "And that's an influence from my dad. But the biggest thing I learned from him is winning."

It is something he learned on his own terms. For years, he distanced himself from baseball, where there would have been precious little room to establish his own identity while following in his father's footsteps. Other than a brief stint with the team in 1985 and 1986, learning the ropes of the organization, Hank remained immersed in the thoroughbred business some 100 miles north at Kinsman Farm in Ocala, where he would produce a steady string of graded stakes champs and 2005 Kentucky Derby favorite Bellamy Road.

He shunned opportunities to become the DH - designated heir - turning down his dad's offer to run the team temporarily when the senior Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball in 1990. He watched with no regrets as one, then another brother-in-law moved into the line of succession until they became former brothers-in-law - ultimately opening the door for Hank to be groomed for a new role.

"I preferred to stay with horse racing, at that time I was even living at the farm," he said. "At no time did I wonder, 'Well, am I going to end up taking it over?' It was a situation where it was a necessity within the last year."

Hank knew the time had come to step up to the plate. And so far, the once-reluctant hot prospect from the Steinbrenner farm team at Kinsman appears to be a natural.

The Beatles to baseball

He grew up in a household where striving to be the best was expected, and as the oldest of George and Joan Steinbrenner's four children, followed in order by Jennifer, Jessica and Hal, Hank, was first on the hot seat. But he remembers plenty of good times with his dad.

The Steinbrenners lived in Cleveland, where George helped run the family shipping business, and the two often would attend Indians and Browns games. "When I was a kid, because my dad didn't own the Yankees yet, we had a lot of time to spend together," Hank recalls. "My dad and I actually saw the '64 championship game when the Browns were 14-point underdogs but destroyed the Colts 27-0."

It wasn't only about sports, either. The Boss-to-be even contributed to his young son's rock 'n' roll education.

In 1964, Hank was 7 and owned a small, cheap guitar that he banged around on at home. News hit that the Beatles were making a return concert at Cleveland's Music Hall and Hank watched all the reports on TV.

"I didn't ask to go see them, I was just following it on the news like everybody else, with all the excitement it created in the city," he says. "My dad came home from work one day and said, 'We're gonna go see the Beatles.' He was in his early 30s and into Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra and all that and he didn't know a thing about rock 'n' roll. Even at 7, I knew what to expect. But he didn't. So he got great seats, like fifth row, center. I remember every bit of that concert because we were so close.

"But the funny part was we were sitting there and there was no announcement. I'll never forget how George Harrison backed out onto the stage and he was laughing and joking with the other guys, and all hell broke loose. I mean, girls coming screaming down the aisles and people climbing on the back of our chairs. And my dad was looking around, like, 'What the expletive have we gotten into?' His reaction was classic."

For all the tempestuousness that would characterize his father as Yankees owner, Hank saw a different man at home. "As a father, he was great," he says. "As a boss, he was very difficult."

Hank was in military prep high school at Culver Academy in Indiana - attended by four generations of Steinbrenners - by the time his father purchased the Yankees in 1973. He had absorbed the family credo of hard work and the pursuit of excellence, but didn't care much for Culver or its rigid rules at the time. "I didn't like it when I was there - very few members of my class (of '76), did, due to one particular superintendent who only lasted two years. But it made me a lot tougher."

Hank already had become heavily involved with the horse farm, which his father had purchased in 1969, and spent summers throughout his teen years working at Kinsman. In contrast to his father, who attended prestigious William & Mary, Hank enrolled at little Central Methodist in Fayette, Mo., where he played soccer but dropped out before his senior year to pursue his passion for horses. He learned the ins and outs of the business at Kinsman, working with trainers, studying breeding, and gradually earning his father's trust.

But Papa Steinbrenner coaxed his son into joining the baseball business in the mid-1980s. Hank was assigned to then-GM Clyde King in '85, followed by King's successor, Woody Woodward. He saw the inner workings of the operation, with Billy Martin managing the first year, Lou Piniella the second.

"In the years I was with the Yankees, he wasn't too involved," Piniella says. "But I've gotten to know him well since then. Hank's a smart guy. Very intelligent and hospitable. Quiet and more reserved than his father. He doesn't have the bluster his dad was known for. I don't think he probably likes the limelight as much as his dad did. He's very serious - all business."

But working for the club afforded neither him nor Hal the prospect of professional growth in a world dominated by their dad. Hank returned to Kinsman, even making time to do some youth sports coaching on the side - but not the sport that consumed his father.

In 1989 and 1990, he was the soccer coach at Ocala Vanguard High, taking the team from 0-11 to 5-7 in his first season. His dad even showed up occasionally to lend his support. The way Piniella sees it, Hank needed to get away and make a life on his own - a sentiment echoed by longtime Yankees observerNew York Daily News columnist Bill Madden.

"I don't think there's any question about that," Madden says. "He told me that's why he left the Yankees after only two years when he was supposed to be really breaking into baseball. Other people have told me the same thing, that George was just oppressive to both Hank those two years and to Hal, who did a similar indoctrination into baseball in the mid '90s, brought in to become sort of a CEO in waiting.

"Neither one of them could work for their father. Hank put it best to me when he said it's one thing to work for your father; it's another thing to work with your father. He's working with him now. And he's allowed to do his job."

'A regular guy'

He's a pack-a-day smoker, but wants to quit to be a better role model for children. As a youngster, he dreamed about becoming a U.S. senator, a goal that delighted his parents. He plays a Fender Stratocaster guitar to relax, likes U2 and he says his favorite meal is pizza.

"Hank's just a regular guy you could have a beer with," longtime friend and Kinsman Farm manager Jim Scott says.

Scott manages the stunning spread that has long served as a second home for the Steinbrenners, with simple ranch houses in close proximity for the four Steinbrenner children and their families, and a slightly bigger abode on a nearby hill for George and Joan. Scott's house is next door to Hank's. They are close in age and startedat the farm in the early 1980s. When Scott left several years ago to work elsewhere, Hank lured him back to Kinsman.

"He's an amazing person," Scott says. "He's very intelligent and a real pedigree expert, one of the best I've ever met. The father of the pedigree and breeding industry was an Italian man named Federico Tesio. We used to jokingly call Hank 'Young Tesio,' but it was really no joke. He's that good."

Scott points to Kinsman's current star thoroughbred, Majestic Warrior - expected to be a Kentucky Derby contender in May - noting that the horse is a descendent of a mare Hank purchased in 1982, then managed the breeding through four generations of graded stakes winners.

"Most farms buy horses as 2-year-olds to race," Scott says. "We raise these horses for five generations. This is almost unheard of nowadays."

Scott credits George Steinbrenner with starting that tradition, and both Hank and Jessica, who serves as the farm's general manager, for helping it flourish. He says he always had a hunch Hank would one day wind up with the Yankees.

"He was always the heir apparent, he just needed the right situation," Scott says. "He's not a media hound. He doesn't mind being in the background, which is different than his father."

Scott has a favorite story about Hank. It takes place in the '80s, when George Steinbrenner was still highly involved at Kinsman.

"Hank was here in our office and we were on a conference call, and Mr. Steinbrenner was chewing me and a couple of other guys out about something," Scott remembers. "Hank was kind of sitting back, not saying anything. But he had one of those little laugh boxes, and when you pushed the button, it would go, 'Ya-ha-ha-ha.'

"So as Mr. Steinbrenner is yelling into the phone, Hank comes up from behind, puts the box right next to the receiver and all of a sudden he hits that button. That thing starts making laughing sounds. And Mr. Steinbrenner comes apart, wanting to know who was laughing during the a---chewing. I didn't think it was funny at the time, but I did later."

Finding his own voice

Hank's life has been a blur since Oct. 19, when Torre rejected the Yankees' incentive-laced, one-year offer for $5-million, $2-million less than he made this past season. When the skipper who delivered four World Series titles told reporters he found the offer insulting, Hank didn't miss a beat, firing a salvo at the popular Torre.

"Where was Joe's career in '95 when my dad hired him?" Hank told the New York Post. "My dad was crucified for hiring him."

He took some heat himself for sounding defensive, but it signaled the official start of the Hank Era. "It was such a firestorm, I felt I had to react and defend our position," he says. "You can't hide in a corner. You have to step up at some point."

Ten days later, when A-Rod opted out of his contract, shopping for a $350-million, 10-year deal, Hank made news again, proclaiming that if Rodriguez didn't want to be a Yankee, the Yankees didn't want him around anyway. But when the third baseman agreed to apologize to Hank and Hal, according to Madden, and leave agent Scott Boras outside the negotiating room, Hank welcomed Rodriguez back, paying him a still-hefty $275-million for 10 years.

Newsday's Wallace Matthews lambasted him for reversing field and overpaying, dubbing him "Boy George." Hank defends the move.

"At the time, none of us really knew what he and Boras intended, we had no clue," he says. "We just thought he really wanted to leave, so my response was if he doesn't want to be a Yankee, we're not going to chase after him. That was always our position. But we found out in the weeks that followed that he really did want to be a Yankee and had just gotten bad advice."

Hank drew some criticism again with the Santana deadline.

"There was a reason I did that," he says. "I didn't want the winter meetings to become a bidding circus; us against the Red Sox or any other team."

"He makes it very clear that the Yankees are a special entity that demand attention," Madden says. "When he put that deadline on the Santana negotiations, that's the kind of thing his father would do. He really has taken charge. He's plunged headfirst into this thing."

Stepping up - and out

He bears a certain resemblance to his father, especially the piercing blue eyes, but wears his hair closely cropped unlike the well-sculpted Boss coif. Photos often show him with a serious expression. Madden attributes that to the strain of working so many years for his father.

"He's always worked for his father in some capacity, whether it was the horses, the Yankees, whatever, and that hasn't been easy," the columnist says.

He has also had his share of personal pain, stemming from a bitter divorce that took place in Pinellas County between 2003-06. He and his then-wife raised their four children in the Clearwater area, but he now resides in Tampa.

"I hate to discuss it for the sake of my children and my ex-wife, but it wasn't easy for me," he says. By some accounts, the divorce wore him down.

But in February, then-brother-in-law Steve Swindal - the expected successor to George Steinbrenner - was arrested and charged with DUI. Wife Jennifer filed for divorce in March and general partner Swindal was out of the running and soon gone from the Yankee ranks.

Not long after, following some gentle prodding by Piniella over lunch, Hank emerged and, with Hal, joined their aging father. He needed them, not just wanted them. The time had come to return to his side. The daughters have done the same, with Jessica expanding her Kinsman duties and Jennifer supervising the New York Yankees Foundation, taking a more visible role in overseeing philanthropic endeavors in the Tampa Bay area and New York.

"I'm happy that we've all stepped up," says Jessica, married to Yankees senior vice president Felix Lopez Jr.

"I think Hank will bring a very calm perspective," says Joe Molloy, who, before his divorce from Jessica in 1997, was a Yankees general partner and a candidate to succeed the Boss. Molloy now works as a middle school teacher in Tampa. "He's very levelheaded and thinks things through thoroughly. His interest is to win and that will carry over."

But not, Hank says, as the result of an explosive management style.

"I tend to be somewhat reactive - I take things as they come, every situation is different," he says. "But as a boss, I'm definitely easy."

And finally out of the Ocala shadows, as his own Boss.

Dave Scheiber can be reached at scheiber@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8541.