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Original Issue

Good Man Sometimes

The note at the front desk read, simply: "GMS will pick you up at 7:15 a.m."

In the course of a few days last April, GMS—George Michael Steinbrenner, General Manager Shredder, Gonna Meddle Surely, Get Me Superstars, whatever—took me on a ride I won't soon forget. I had been assigned to write a profile of Steinbrenner, but, unfortunately, the major story I eventually completed was trumped by a minor event beyond my control, namely, his banishment from the Yankees. Still, I will always treasure those little peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches we shared on his private jet... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Like most everybody else, I subscribed to the notion of Steinbrenner as a meddlesome, tiresome, fulsome megalomaniac who ran the Yankees with illogic and discompassion. However, being an objective reporter, I decided to leave my excess baggage at home—I brought only a garment bag with me to Tampa. On the other hand, being a cynical reporter, I knew I would detect any sign of falseness on GMS's part, or worse, the unseen hand of an eager publicity agent.

Thus armed, I got into the back of the dark Cadillac that waited outside Tampa's Radisson Bay Harbor Inn, which GMS happens to own. Steinbrenner was in the front seat alongside his chauffeur, an arrangement that struck me as odd given his penchant for backseat driving. We were on our way to a breakfast meeting of Tampa civic leaders who were anxious about the tense racial situation in the city. Steinbrenner went over his hectic schedule for the next few days, and I, eyes wide with wonder, said, "Gee, you must never sleep." Steinbrenner replied, "I still manage to get my seven or eight hours. Donald says he can do it on three or four hours, but I can't." I wondered whether he talking about Donald Trump or Donald Mattingly.

After the breakfast meeting, at which Steinbrenner actually made some constructive comments, we convened in his office at the appropriately named Rocky Point complex. The office, like his car, is big but not overly ostentatious, a Cadillac, not a Rolls-Royce. (Steinbrenner is a man of rather simple, even likable tastes: White Castle sliders and The Odd Couple reruns, Super Dave Osborne and Krispy Kreme glazed doughnuts.)

Functionaries scurried in and out like so many Bob Cratchits, but GMS's then secretary, Terri Hubbard, was in command of every demand, including one that she send herself flowers for Secretaries Day. Later that afternoon, I accompanied GMS on a trip to New York in his private jet, with, among others, Leonard Kleinman, chief operating officer of the Yankees and George Bradley, the Yankees' vice-president for player development.

In flight, the two Georges and Kleinman talked about the state of the club in between PB&J sandwiches. Steinbrenner insists that his jet be stocked with them. The plane didn't touch down until 9 p.m., by which time the Yankees were losing 5-1 to the Seattle Mariners. "Nice job you did with the club," Steinbrenner told Bradley.

The other George forced a laugh as he got into the car that would take us to the stadium. Just before arriving at the park, Steinbrenner told Bradley, "After the game, I want to see Bucky in my office." Pause. "I just want to cheer him up."

The next morning, some of America's finest legal minds gathered in a ballroom of New York's Grand Hyatt to hear a breakfast talk by George M. Steinbrenner III. These men and women are paid to be skeptical, yet Steinbrenner, speaking without notes, held them spellbound for half an hour. But then they probably hadn't heard many speeches in which Horace Clarke, Claude Monet and Simon Legree were all invoked. (Clarke to Monet to Legree...double play!) That afternoon, Steinbrenner joined some friends on a train ride to Philadelphia for a dinner in honor of Dr. Roger Bannister.

The next day GMS attended the Penn Relays as both benefactor (he gave $25,000 to the meet and helped bring in another $50,000 in sponsorship) and patron (he sponsors a track club, the Florida Clippers). The Penn Relays are special to Steinbrenner for another reason. Standing in the infield at one point, he nudged me and turned to a page in the program listing past winners of the 120-yard high hurdles. Under his finger was 1927—HENRY STEINBRENNER, MIT. "My father," he said. Then he turned to a page listing past winners of the shuttle hurdles and pointed to 1952—LOCKBOURNE AIR FORCE BASE. "I anchored that team," he said.

A psychologist might try to explain Steinbrenner's behavior patterns over the years as narcissistic, but in simpler terms, he is still racing against his old man, who, by George's account, was not a very easy man to please. "When the Yankees won the world championship in 1977, my father told someone, 'Well, he did that right."

GMS is not the caricature of villainy so many of you think. He has personal dimensions the public will never know about. He's a Good Man Sometimes. He Gives Money Stintlessly. He is fond of saying, "My dad told me that if you do something nice for someone and more than two people know about it, you're doing it for the wrong reason." Of course, in the next breath, he'll tell you he paid for so-and-so's funeral or that he funds spring training for the baseball teams of each service academy, including the Merchant Marine Academy. He does perform good works, though.

He is a Renaissance Man as well as a Spanish Inquisition Man. He can discuss the novels of Thomas Hardy. He can play passable piano. He enjoys the ballet. He can even tell you the difference between a Rhode Island Red and a blue Orpington. Those are chickens, and when Steinbrenner was just a shaver, his father set him up in his own egg business. "It was called the George Company," he said. "I had to learn how to kill chickens—they'd be running around with their heads cut off. It was fairly successful. When I went away to military school, I sold the business to my sisters for more than it was worth."

Just think of the Yankees as a latter-day George Company and the managers as headless chickens. Charming though he might be, GMS wasn't, isn't and probably never will be a picnic to work for. A former Yankee employee who still has occasion to talk with him says, "When I get off the phone with George now, I think, What a great guy! But then I remember what it was like to work for him, the fear I felt, the sweaty palms I'd get every time the phone rang, the grown men he reduced to tears. When all is said and done, I think St. Peter is going to send George down to Columbus."

The last time I saw Steinbrenner was in his office a week after the Penn Relays. We talked about his father, the Yankees, politics, Spira, Eustacia Vye (the heroine of Hardy's The Return of the Native), harness racing, shipbuilding, Krispy Kreme doughnuts. "You want to get them at eight o'clock, fresh off the conveyor belt," he told me. As I walked out, he said to me, "If you're staying at the hotel tonight, I'll have some of the doughnuts sent over to you." The Krispy Kremes never arrived, but, hey, it was the thought that counted.

Somebody could have done a wonderful version of Dickens's A Christmas Carol with Steinbrenner as Ebenezer Scrooge. On the eve of Opening Day, Steinbrenner-Scrooge would be visited by the ghost of his late partner, Billy Martin-Jacob Marley. Martin-Marley could be dragging a chain made out of bizarre lineup cards, marshmallows, X-rays of pitchers' blown-out arms, cocktail napkins, blue AL umpire caps, etc. Cratchit, of course, would be a hapless PR man. Tiny Tim could be the Scooter, Phil Rizzuto.

Unlike Scrooge, GMS has lost his chance at redemption. Which is too bad. I find myself hoping that some day he will be called up from Columbus.