Saturday, July 17, 2010

George Steinbrenner Memories

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH

I've dealt with a lot of unbelievable people over the years.

But the most intimidating, yet misunderstood, had to be the late New York Yankees Owner George M. Steinbrenner, who passed away on July 13 at the age of 80.

Back in the 1980's, I met Steinbrenner for the first time at his hotel in Tampa, The Bay Harbor Inn.

We were walking down the hallway and I asked him for his autograph.

At first, he didn't give it to me as he walked past because there were a lot of people nearby. But as I walked further down the hallway, he approached me and asked, "Son where would you like me to sign?" I had a piece of paper and he was very polite. I thanked him very much and he said it was his pleasure as we shook hands.

I used to go to The Bay Harbor Inn a lot because it was very convenient being located off of Route 60 otherwise known as the Courtney Campbell Causeway. I took this route to see my best friends Gus Pantelides and Mike Pantel, who lived in Clearwater Beach. Pantelides once took me to a rib place for a birthday in the hotel.

My next encounter with Steinbrenner occurred at Fort Lauderdale Stadium when the Yankees used the facility for Spring Training and then had a team in the Florida State League.

When I was working with the Hallandale Digest, I convinced Publisher Peter Bluesten to let me cover the Fort Lauderdale Yankees.

His son Dan was totally against the idea because it wasn't local.

I felt the weekly paper needed a South Florida identity. It had to be a factor in the area not limited to our city therefore, I convinced Peter that by marketing in all areas, covering all sports, it could increase revenues and give our publication a major league identity.

It would put the Hallandale Digest on the Media Map.

Peter decided to give me the freedom to run the Sports Department and told Danny that "I have a young writer that I want to see develop and I want to see what he can do!"

Thus, Danny was forced to live with his fathers decision and told him to concentrate on the papers business side.

Dan and I had a respectful working relationship but I felt there was an adversarial side where he wanted to try to challenge me at every opportunity that he could.

Thankfully, Peter was there to be the buffer between us and this enabled me to do my job.

Dan once told me that he felt former Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda wouldn't remember me after an initial interview which we had months earlier. I proved Dan wrong when I played the tape in front of Peter, who gave me a big, smile, hug and kiss.

But back to the Yankees. I loved baseball and knew that it would be a lot of fun to write about the most storied franchise in sports. I thought Class A Baseball would be great because it gave me an opportunity to view "Tomorrows Stars Today" because these future major leaguers have to come from somewhere.

The Florida State League was an excellent training ground for younger players because the ballparks statistics wouldn't be misleading because of spring training.

I enjoyed writing feature stories about future players that went on to have productive & outstanding careers. I enjoyed presenting ideas to Dan and while he reluctantly accepted some of them, as I would track their progress and see them get promoted, while I knew I had Peter's respect, I began to gradually gain Dan's confidence and was questioned less because I depended on my eyes and instincts.

I'll never forget the time when I walked into the office one day and Dan said that he heard that Steinbrenner was at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. I told him "is that right or are you just kidding me?" He told me he was serious. This entire conversation took place in front of Peter.

I told Dan, "what you heard was true but I have to tell you something. I interviewed Steinbrenner and that story will appear in next weeks paper."

I proceeded to pull out the tape and played it to them. These two guys were shocked!

Peter proceeded to rip Danny again and told him that I told you he knew what he was doing!

You could hear this conversation from the United States to Iceland.

During the interview with Steinbrenner, I asked him the easy questions about developing his farm system, why he traded younger players for more established ones, what players he expected big years, how he felt about the teams slow start. He was candid about every question that I asked him "until the very last one."

This question was about why he changed managers so frequently. He explained the success to me in a very authoritative voice on how many championships his teams won under his tenure and after he finished answering my question, he abruptly ended the interview.

I knew even at the age of 20, to start with the softer questions and hit him hard at the end.

By the end of the interview, I had everything I needed and was satisfied with what I accomplished. By no means was I upset as to how things ended.

We're talking about a guy that fired Billy Martin five times and dismissed Dick Howser after a 100 win season. All Howser did was win a World Series after he left the Yankees with the Kansas City Royals.

With Steinbrenner having seen so many people, he never remembered that we met at The Bay Harbor Inn. I didn't care to bring it up either because my role this time was as a writer.

The message I pounded home to Danny was loud and clear. You can find great story ideas anywhere as long as you're out there available to to the public.

By covering the Fort Lauderdale Yankees, this enabled me to be able to write about the New York Yankees for a couple years. I had great memories dealing with Dave Winfield, Martin, Don Baylor, Butch Wynegar, Ken Griffey Sr and many others.

I would gain a measure of satisfaction when Steinbrenner appeared on ABC News Nightline with Ted Koppel. Like myself, the managerial firings were one of Koppel's questions and "The Boss" ripped Koppel as he did myself explaining the success of his decision making methods.

The Wonderful World of Journalism has moments where you can't be afraid to take chances and ask the tough questions. It's the publics right to know information and feelings about subjects pertinent to them.

But I feel grateful that in both of my dealings of Steinbrenner that the man was cooperative. I learned different lessons from each experience. I'm glad that Steinbrenner passed away as a World Champion and he has now won seven titles.

When we spoke in the 1980's, he had only one two World Series. He learned to become more patient over the years winning five with two managers. Since 1996, there have only been two Yankees skippers as I mention Joe Torre and Joe Girardi.

Indeed, Steinbrenner mellowed over the years, listened to his baseball people and was rewarded as a result. As "The Boss" rejoins Martin in heaven, will these two men begin attempting to win more titles with the likes of the many past Yankees immortals at the old Yankee Stadium? Whether Martin and Steinbrenner win championships elsewhere, I'm sure the man upstairs will be completely entertained by this duo.

We'll let the imagination take over and draw your own conclusions.

But this story has given me the unique opportunity to share a couple nice memories about Steinbrenner, in addition to my father like relationship with my loving mentor Peter Bluesten.

Steinbrenner's bold behavior taught me to never to take things personally and gain as much out of every interaction.

As for Peter, he was just "one of a kind" and both of these individuals are in good hands with the man upstairs having positive impacts on those people they were around.

I'm grateful to George and Peter and I hope you both rest in peace.

Scott Morganroth can be reached at scottsports33@aol.com and his blog can be seen at www.scottsports33.com.

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