The Many Faces of George

Monday, December 30 2002 @ 11:09 AM EST

Contributed by: Coach

In today's NY Daily News, five people who have known George Steinbrennner well talk to Wayne Coffey about the Boss. Football coach Lou Saban, "magnitude of me" Reggie Jackson, some guy named Bud, PR man Marty Appel and one of GMS III's favourite warriors, Lou Piniella, share their recollections of a man who is underestimated and misunderstood by many.

This is the second of a two-part series; yesterday Coffey had a long interview, 30 Years of George, with the man himself. That's also a recommended read, especially his thoughts on Selig and Larry Lucchino. The Boss is also trying to light a fire under Joe Torre and Derek Jeter.

I knew Steinbrenner in my harness racing days. He talks about winning a Kentucky Derby as an unfulfilled goal, but a decade ago had just as powerful a stable of trotters and pacers, trained by Tommy Haughton at Pompano Park, where I was the senior racing official. On a slow baseball news day, here are a few personal thoughts about the man and the legend.

To explain our relationship more clearly, my job was to put on the best possible show -- full fields of competive horses -- but from any owner's perspective, the idea is to intimidate or cajole the racing department into carding a race where your horse is tons the best. George would have a young pacer he paid top dollar for, capable of beating stakes horses, and insist on me "opening up" a class where the animal was no longer eligible, and would dominate as a short-priced favourite. The betting public doesn't like one-horse races, short fields, or odds-on "chalk." Other horsemen are furious when you insert a superior colt into a class they have already entered. Much yelling would ensue on both ends of the phone. Other times, a Steinbrenner steed would be prepping for an upcoming big-money event, and I'd get a more subtle call from his trainer (Haughton, who I played ball with, was the "good cop") begging for a favour in a tuneup race. In that situation, I extended the same courtesy to other owners; trying to get two or three of these classy horses into the same heat.

George would call on a Wednesday morning, when we drew the Saturday night card, and (especially if he was going to be in town) apply pressure to get as many of his horses raced as possible, in the softest spots he could imagine. I wanted them on the program, but didn't want to give the purse money away. It was three years of compromise, and many times I expressed gratitude that I didn't work for the man, but I like to think there was mutual respect.

One night, the Steinbrenner table in the clubhouse dining room was filled with celebrity pals, and I had my family at the track. My son, Matt, had just turned five and had one season of T-ball under his belt. Matty approached this big, loud stranger and asked, "Mr. Steinbrenner, are you looking for left-handed pitching?" Like the kindly grandpa he is, the Boss -- not knowing whose kid it was -- made a little boy feel like a king. They signed a Yankees contract on a napkin, and although we rehearsed the introduction, Matt had to ad-lib a response to George's inquiry about his salary demands. "How about four tickets to a game?"

The next morning, the tickets were on my desk. They were in the owner's field-level box, looking right into the adjacent Yankees dugout. In the sixth inning, an important-looking guy in a Yankees shirt asked if we were the Williams family. We were. That earned us a post-game invitation to the clubhouse, where we spent a memorable couple of hours. Matt played catch with Brian Howe, Steve's son, and collected every autograph but Paul O'Neill's (Paulie blew the tyke off with a rude phrase.) Mom and Erin took lots of photos and struck up family-style conversations; Dad talked baseball with Boggs, Showalter, Howe, Boyer and many others, in an unforgettable afternoon. Thanks, George.

The only time we saw the Boss at Pompano was during spring training; the Yanks were based in Fort Lauderdale back then. His table was the place to be, and his best pal at the track was our PR genius, Allen Finkelson. They would argue about anything, entertaining everyone in the vicinity. I had to break up a "fight" about who played 2B for the Cubs in 1948, or something; got them to put their jackets back on and sit down by pointing out the rest of us hadn't had time to place our bets on the outcome. I also heard many stories, from Allen, Tommy and others who knew him well, about George's generosity.

Much of his Florida time was spent upstate, between the horse farms in Ocala and his Tampa offices. On the I-4 shuttle one day, George stopped to assist a broken-down bus. A phone call later, a fleet of limos arrived to take some previously devastated, suddenly thrilled kids the rest of the way to Disney World. In addition to his bluster, the man has a big heart. (And a sense of humour; knowing how mercilessly he would be parodied, who else would give his blessing to a recurring character on Seinfeld?)

All his so-called faults originate from the same source -- an insatiable desire to win. And after his slow start owning the Yankees, he figured out how to do just that. His illegal political contribution? Wanted "his" guy to win. Some would dismiss Steinbrenner's qualifications for the Hall of Fame because of that non-baseball error in judgement; others know him only by reputation and chose a long time ago to dislike him. They are missing the point. George is one of a kind -- his success, his influence and his notoriety lead straight to Cooperstown. And he doesn't want you to know this, but he's a helluva guy.