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Baby Yanks grow together and win a title

Hank's Baby Yanks, an 18-and-under summer league team of 22 kids who play at Baseball Heaven in Yaphank, began as an act of generosity.

And after a 5-1 victory over the Smithtown Bulls in the Aug. 15 finale, the team formed by Hank Steinbrenner and coach Ray Negron proved to be far more than a kind gesture. It led to a championship season that changed the lives of struggling youth.

One night this past winter, Steinbrenner and Negron, a Yankees special assistant, were role playing. Hank was his father, George M. Steinbrenner, and Negron was Billy Martin. Their banter portrayed George's mercurial nature, but highlighted his proclivity for giving second chances. The two had a good laugh and then the idea to form Hank's Baby Yanks came to them. Hank would act as the team's financier and Negron would be the manager. It was art imitating life - but without the multiple firings.

The players are from throughout New York and were hand-picked by Negron and other coaches. Many come from single-parent homes, struggling to afford things like cell phones, transportation or, in one case, diapers for a 1-year-old son.

Steinbrenner and various Yankees, including A.J. Burnett and Robinson Cano, fund the team, but Negron, 54, is the players' mentor. Growing up in the Bronx and Brooklyn, Negron ran with bad company. He even has his own legendary tale of triumph. At 17 he was caught painting graffiti on Yankee Stadium. Instead of pressing charges, George Steinbrenner made Negron the bat boy that night.

Negron said it was a second chance at a new life and he brought the same mentality to coaching the Baby Yanks.

Instructing the team was not easy in the beginning. These were boys who had promises made to them and broken.

"It was the aspect of trust," Negron said. "Initially they didn't know me and they knew the legend of the Steinbrenner name, but why the hell should Hank give a damn about them - that was the [mentality]."

But when a player exited his home for practice, there was Negron or another coach parked with the carpool ready to roll.

"With each passing day they saw the consistency of it all and they saw we were there for them in little ways," Negron said. "Sometimes I could see the look and I know that look. Sometimes at the beginning it was scary, but by the end of the season I never saw that look again. I saw the love. And do you know how it feels to have a teenager who's not your son say I love you coach? It's like the most beautiful thing in the world."

The love that Negron speaks of often comes from a place of pain, or at least a wound that has taken time to heal. Outfielder Jonathan Smith, 17, lost both his parents. He was an infant when his father died, and his mother died from a heart attack in 2007 after a bout with diabetes.

Smith spent time with a bad crowd. "I would slip," said Smith, who now lives with his grandmother in Bay Shore. "Everybody does slip once or twice, here and there, but [the team] kind of put a little pep in my step. Joining the team, I didn't think I could bond with a team like this. It turns out it was just like another family."

The familial tie between teammates was almost literal at times. A 17-year-old player could not afford a baby-sitter, so he brought his 1-year-old son to the game and the team looked after him in the dugout.

"In the fourth inning, we were changing pampers," Negron said with a chuckle.

The team also has talent. Negron expects third baseman Matt Duran and centerfielder William Cuevas to be drafted after completing high school.

While these budding stars were integral in the team's 21-2 record in the summer league, the championship game hinged on a sacrifice fly in the third inning and hits strung together in the fifth. A sacrifice and a group effort - they are symbolic of the team's camaraderie.

The team will play its last game of the summer on Thursday. Dubbed The Boss's Cup, it will play a team sponsored by Mariano Rivera at Yankee Stadium.

Playing at the baseball cathedral will be a treat, but this summer was filled with weighty moments for the players.

A good defensive player, Smith struggled offensively while batting ninth. He estimated he switched batting stances 10 times before going back to his first stance.

Smith described his teammates as brothers because they have a shared understanding of trials and tribulations. And it is the same reason why his teammates were overjoyed to see him bust out for his first home on July 31.

"My first legit hit of the whole season," Smith said. "As soon as I hit it I felt nothing off the bat, I felt nothing. I heard someone say, 'That's gone!' I heard everyone before the ball even left the park and when I came to home plate I saw everyone there. Even all the people in the stands were clapping.

"It's not just because of the home run, but because they believed in me, not just the fans, but the families there. I didn't smile around the bases, but I smiled so hard when I crossed home plate. It's like, even if you don't believe in yourself, there's somebody out there that believes in you."

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