Hank Steinbrenner's youth team pays its respects to the late...

Hank Steinbrenner's youth team pays its respects to the late George Steinbrenner by having a moment of silence before its game, Thursday. (July 15, 2010) Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

Once the name George Steinbrenner was mentioned, the two dozen players in Yankees uniforms bowed their heads in silence. But this wasn't Yankee Stadium. And there weren't anywhere close to 50,000 people in the crowd.

Let the record show that the first New York tribute to the late Yankees boss took place last night in Yaphank, at a sports complex aptly named Baseball Heaven.

Before the 13th game of its season, the 18-and-under team funded by Hank Steinbrenner met in leftfield foul territory and shared a moment of silence to honor Hank's dad.

This team is coached by Ray Negron, the guy Steinbrenner caught as a teenager spray-painting graffiti on the Yankee Stadium exterior wall 37 years ago. Instead of punishing Negron, the owner offered him the job of batboy, telling him he could keep it as long as he stayed out of trouble.

Negron didn't speak to his players last night about The Boss. He's done that many times this summer, to be sure. He felt it was appropriate to let one of his players do the talking. So he gave the floor to Jonathan Smith, a 17-year-old outfielder from Bay Shore.

Smith lost his father when he was a baby and his mother when he was 14, which is why Negron referred to him as the strongest player on the team. So with the team lined up together facing away from the field, Smith stood in front of them and spoke eloquently about the importance of giving thanks.

Steinbrenner always had a soft spot in his heart for kids, and it was easy to picture him being touched by Smith's talk and this appreciative gesture by the team. Negron recalled how Steinbrenner used to give him baseball equipment for him and his friends to use, and now Hank is following his dad's lead.

After Steinbrenner died Tuesday, Negron thought of a new way for his team to honor him. He wanted their jerseys to say "The Boss" on them. He ran the idea past Hank, who gave Negron the go-ahead to make it happen.

So when the team arrived at the complex last night, Negron had a box of pinstriped jerseys to hand. Instead of the typical N-Y insignia on the front of the jersey, the N was replaced by an H, to signify "Hank's Yanks." And sure enough, on the left sleeve it read, "The Boss."

Lionel Vinas, an 18-year-old pitcher from Freeport, saw the message and smiled. "We want to win for him," he said. "We want to dedicate this game to him."

Max Watt, a 15-year-old pitcher from Babylon, said he learned of Steinbrenner's death on ESPN. He instantly thought about his coach and all the stories he's told them about The Boss, about how much Negron says Steinbrenner is responsible for changing the course of his life.

"I find it fitting that we're playing this game for him at a place called Baseball Heaven," he said.

When players were asked what comes to mind when they hear George Steinbrenner's name, the word they used most often was "winner." These are kids who were born in the mid-1990s and grew up watching the Yankees in the playoffs each year. But because of Negron, they have learned more about the other side of Steinbrenner.

"I've learned that he always gave back to others," Smith said, "even though he didn't always want people to know about it."

Last night, these two dozen teenagers honored that memory in silence.

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