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Covering The Boss: Newsday reporters recall what it was like when their assignments meant tracking George Steinbrenner

George Steinbrenner waves to a crowd of cheering

George Steinbrenner waves to a crowd of cheering Yankee fans as he walks out onto the field on his first day back as owner of the Yankees at training camp in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Monday, March 1, 1993.  Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS/Lynne Sladky

Monday will mark 10 years since longtime Yankees owner George Steinbrenner died of a heart attack shortly after his 80th birthday. Four Newsday reporters remembered their time covering the loud, colorful and controversial character known as “The Boss.’’

WORKING THE PHONES

During my early years covering the Yankees as Newsday’s beat writer in the late 1990s, I didn’t have a cellphone or the internet, which was in its very primitive stages.

The numbers I needed were in a black address book (cliche, I know), and the most important one rang an office in Tampa, where the person who took the call dutifully scribbled down my name and contact info.

“It’s David Lennon, from Newsday,” I’d say.

And what can I tell him you’re calling about?

“His Yankees.”

Rarely was more detail needed. George Steinbrenner always seemed to know exactly why reporters were dialing him up, and if he felt like talking, he’d return the message and you’d have a back page story for the next morning (remember, no websites then — just the print edition).

But here’s the thing. No one knew exactly when The Boss would ring you back. It could be at any moment, and for me, the only phone was a cordless Panasonic handset in the living room. We didn’t really use the term “landline” then because just saying “phone” covered it.

Also, I usually placed the call first thing, at 9 a.m. So any activity that might cause me to not hear the phone ring was out of the question (often I checked to make sure the ringer was working after making the call). Bagel run? No chance. Go for a short jog along the East River? Negative.

My perimeter was limited by the range of my cordless Panasonic, so I could basically get as far as the kitchen. Just taking a shower came with considerable risk, and you had to speed through. Hearing that ring mid-shampoo was not ideal.

Sad to say, during my five years on the Yankees beat, there were a handful of times when I rolled the dice. I’d come out of the bathroom, or return to my apartment, and the message light on my phone would be blinking. Instantly, my stomach would tighten. I’d pray it was my brother, or Mom, or ConEd, or even my landlord demanding overdue rent. Just. Not. Him. Then I’d press the button, dreading those five words.

“George Steinbrenner returning your call.”

Ugh. To this day, it still makes me sick. I remember The Boss referring to himself in the third person on the message. All these years later, it’s permanently imprinted on my brain. And then that was it. There was no second try. If you missed that return call, you were done for the day. Or at least I was, as a relative newbie on the beat.

The only hope was that maybe the other beat writers hadn’t called him, or suffered the same terrible fate. Not likely. I feared what the back pages of the Post and Daily News would look like the next morning.

After a while, a beat writer just knew when to dial up Steinbrenner’s Tampa office — it was like a sixth sense.  

And yet there were a few magical occasions when it was just you. One of those times for me was in 1998, when the Yankees lost Opening Night to the Angels during a bizarro water-logged affair in Anaheim. The next morning, waking up in my Newport Beach hotel room, I sensed an opportunity.

Steinbrenner had joked with manager Joe Torre in spring training about going 162-0 after The Boss spent a record $72 million on that year’s team. Now they were 0-1, and even worse, the expansion Devil Rays — who played in Steinbrenner’s backyard — had won their opener. On top of that, the Yankees began that season on the West Coast to supposedly avoid bad weather back home in New York — and ran into an El Niño monsoon instead.

Most people wouldn’t think twice about an Opening Day loss, but George Steinbrenner wasn’t most people. He was one of a kind. And he was livid that day. Irrationally, illogically livid. And just as the door was closing behind me on the way to what was then called Edison International Field, I heard my hotel room phone ring.

“I’m worried that our guys are reading their press clippings,” Steinbrenner said. “You still have to go out on the field and do the job. Nobody’s going to hand anything to them.

“This team is very well put together . . . and everybody says it’s so well done. But you still have to work hard. They haven’t won a thing yet. They’re 0-1, behind the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in our division right now. Maybe this is a little shocker. Maybe they’ll come back a little more focused.”

Steinbrenner hammered away at one of his favorite piñatas, American League president Gene Budig, for switching the game from March 31 to April 1. He also ranted about his team getting soaked in SoCal, a scenario so rare that the Angels don’t even have a tarp.

“We’re not going to do this next year,” he said. “I’ve decided we’re going to open at home.”

Perfect. I couldn’t open my laptop fast enough. At those moments, all the insanity felt worth it. Almost.

-- DAVID LENNON

MAKING HIS POINT

My indoctrination to the Yankees beat came by way of a two-word assignment: Get Steinbrenner.

It was 2004, and I had just flown to Tampa for my first spring training experience. I was waiting by the airport baggage carousel alongside dozens of folks dressed for the beach when my cellphone rang.

“We need Steinbrenner’s reaction today,” my editor told me by phone. He didn’t need to say why.

The day before, the Yankees had traded for reigning American League MVP Alex Rod-riguez, who would change positions to cater to “frenemy’’ Derek Jeter.

“Sure, of course,” I said, trying to sound calm and confident, as if finding Steinbrenner were the equivalent of going to pick up milk from the grocery store.

Meanwhile, going through my head were thoughts like, Get Steinbrenner!?!? How? Where?

My colleague suggested I start my Steinbrenner manhunt at the team’s minor-league complex, which was across the street from their spring training stadium and in the shadows of Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

There, at the entrance to the Yankees’ complex where the security gate resides, I found a bunch of autograph-seeking Yankees fans. They laughed when I told them my goal for the day.

This group, which was there seemingly every day awaiting the likes of Jeter, Mariano and Bernie, assured me that Steinbrenner shows up every day, usually in the early afternoon. Soon, two other reporters appeared, for the same purpose. So I stayed put.

Sure enough, early afternoon came and so did Steinbrenner. He pulled into the lot in a dark blue BMW with the license plate GMS01 on the back and the Yankees emblem on the front. He got out of the car gingerly and took a few steps toward the shoulder-high shrubs that separated us and him.

He knew the other reporters. He didn’t recognize me. So I introduced myself, and the reporter next to me immediately called out, “Hey George, fresh meat!”

Steinbrenner laughed, perhaps more like a cackle, and then he answered questions.

And while he said nothing too outrageous that day, that’s when I became addicted to the Steinbrenner chase. You never knew what would happen when you found him. The possibility of a back page story — as well as the entertainment of a Steinbrenner exchange — always was hanging in the balance.

Whenever people ask what The Boss was like to be around, I say the Seinfeld character played by Larry David wasn’t that far off.

Yes, by 2004, he was older and slower than his prime newsmaking years from the 1980s, but there still were times when he broke out into the say-anything-at-any-cost character he used to be. He certainly still invoked fear in his employees.  

Security guards used to radio a secret code to keep each other informed of Steinbrenner’s proximity to their unit. Decoding that became critical to know where to go to find Steinbrenner around the complex.

Another time, while I waited hours for him in the lobby of the complex to get his reaction to who knows what, the secretary kindly asked me if I could eat my food outside because Steinbrenner hates the smell lingering in the lobby.

Steinbrenner often loved the exchanges with reporters, too.

Once, when talking about his health, he went off on a tangent about the exercise called “body lovers” he does every morning, then flexed his biceps and asked me to feel them. I declined, and another reporter jumped at the offer — and was very effusive with his praise.

Steinbrenner didn’t fall for it, instead raising a curious eyebrow and saying the reporter was lying.

Another time, another reporter and I spoke to Steinbrenner through the passenger window of his car while he signed autographs for fans out his window. He kept interjecting the thought that the fans wanted his autograph only “because they think I’m dying.”

It was a strange thing to say — Steinbrenner had just spent time in the hospital that winter after fainting at a funeral — and I didn’t know how to respond. Does he want me to dispute that? But Steinbrenner’s big laugh quickly broke the awkward silence, and he quickly snapped back to his usual thoughts — namely, how it was going to be a great spring training, that everyone is arriving at the park early, getting in shape.

Then he pointed to the reporter next to me — a bigger man — and Steinbrenner said he would make it his personal mission to get the reporter in shape this spring, too. Gulp. A photographer captured the image of Steinbrenner pointing his finger, and the photo has run so many times over the years.

I laugh every time I see it, knowing the words being uttered at that moment.

Steinbrenner loved to pretend that he didn’t like reporters, even toward the end, when he was backing away from the spotlight.

In 2006, perhaps the last real visible spring training for him, he stopped his golf cart in the bowels of the stadium to speak to maybe 10 of us reporters.

He proceeded to criticize the inaugural World Baseball Classic while repeatedly threatening (jokingly?) to run us over if he didn’t like the next question. Finally, to prove his point, he stepped on the gas just a little, as if he were revving the engine. But we were in close quarters, so the cart nearly caused a sportswriter domino. No one fell to the ground, but a tire ran over the foot of WFAN’s Sweeny Murti and the front fender hit my shin.

Steinbrenner, always impressively immune to his own actions, laughed some more and said, “Now get out of my way!” And The Boss sped off for good.

-- JIM BAUMBACH

LARGER THAN LIFE

Joe Girardi had plenty to choose from.

He played for the Yankees from 1996-99, managed them from 2008-17 and won four championships — three as a player (1996, 1998, 1999) and one as a manager (2009).

Again, a lot of choices.

But Girardi did not hesitate when asked his favorite Opening Day Yankee Stadium memory.

“It had to have been 2010, being able to give the ring to Mr. Steinbrenner. That has to be my fondest memory,” Girardi said via Zoom on Wednesday. “There are a lot of fond memories because we won in ’96, ’98, ’99 . . . But it’s something that’s just truly special that I had an opportunity to give it to him before he passed on.”

George Steinbrenner — better known as The Boss — attended that home opener on April 13, 2010, which was among the last games he saw in person. He died less than three months later, on July 13, 2010, at the age of 80.

In my second season covering the Yankees for Newsday, I was at the Stadium for the 2010 home opener. I remember well Girardi’s postgame reaction to the private ring-presentation ceremony, which took place in the Steinbrenner family suite before a 7-5 victory over the Angels and included Derek Jeter (who, naturally, homered in the win).

By then The Boss, his health in decline for several years, rarely attended games and was long out of the picture as far as day-to-day operations of the club were concerned. The outspoken Hank Steinbrenner ran the team for a short period before Hal, the youngest of George’s four children, took over as MLB’s designated control person in November 2008.

Steinbrenner received a big ovation when he was shown on the big screen that April afternoon. At that point in his life, he was an overwhelmingly beloved figure, as the fan base felt indebted to him for the dynasty established in the late ’90s. By then, the indescribable insanity of a good portion of his ownership tenure had been forgotten, or at the very least forgiven.

Veteran journalists in town — including at this paper — have endless stories about covering The Boss.

Of, in pre-cellphone days, waiting by the phone for a return call, petrified in the knowledge that he already had talked to one or two (or more) of your competitors. Of getting a different kind of call, an angry Boss reaching out for a decidedly one-sided conversation to express anger at something he saw under your byline — or maybe just overall in your paper — that he didn’t like. Of an entire spring training day or night wiped out while necessarily waiting for hours for Steinbrenner to emerge from the manager’s office. Necessary because once he emerged, it was better than 50-50 that he would deliver back-page gold.

And so on.

Having taken over the Yankees beat in 2009, I had none of those experiences. But always striking was how Steinbrenner, even toward the end, clearly remained a larger-than-life figure.

And he remains larger-than-life.  After all, hardly a day goes by around the franchise when some long-time employee — and this is the case for many Yankees fans as well — doesn’t tell a George Steinbrenner story of some kind, usually including some form of the phrase “If The Boss was still alive . . . ”

Minutes after that home opener 10 years ago, Girardi called presenting Steinbrenner his seventh championship ring “one of the best parts of my day,” and when he spoke of that occasion last week, time clearly had not dimmed that feeling.

Jeter, who revered The Boss, stood by his locker in the Yankee Stadium clubhouse in the late afternoon that day talking about, yes, the victory, but also about the encounter. The shortstop, unemotional about 99% of his career when talking to reporters and not typically interested in introspection, smiled broadly when discussing the latter. His affection was obvious.

“Usually when I meet with him, I’m in trouble,” Jeter said before quickly transitioning to being serious. “To present him with the ring, you know how much winning means to him. That’s the only thing he cares about . . . That’s the thing I’ll take the most from this Opening Day, getting the opportunity to go up there and present him with his ring.”

-- ERIK BOLAND  

‘STEINBRENNER WATCH’

There are several typical assignments that come with covering a Yankees home game. One is to write the game story and another is to write a column that takes a position or analyzes some part of the contest. A third is to write sidebars that examine specific play or performance, adding color to the coverage.

But for a long stretch in the 2000s, the New York Daily News — for whom I worked at the time — created a new one: “Steinbrenner Watch.” If you were assigned to Steinbrenner Watch, your responsibility was to be in position in front of the doors to the Yankees’ offices at the old Yankee Stadium when owner George Steinbrenner arrived for or departed a game to see if The Boss had anything to say about his team.

Sometimes — many times, actually — it produced very little. But other times, if Steinbrenner wanted his voice   in the New York sports conversation, he would stop and take some questions and let the fans hear what he thought of his team’s performance that day. If he was particularly colorful or critical, it might be the makings of a back page. And at that time, the back pages often sold the paper on the newsstand.

For that reason, and because of the high level of competition between the eight news organizations that covered the Yankees then, Steinbrenner Watch became a necessity for many of them most days.

I, like many who cover baseball, spent plenty of hours in the yardage between Steinbrenner’s Lincoln Town Car and those office doors. There were times when we at the Daily News used two people to man the two different exits from the Stadium.

I wasn’t there for all of the most memorable moments of Steinbrenner Watch, but some were quite good.

After the fifth defeat in a 2003 losing streak, he had a list of grievances. Of manager Joe Torre, he said, “We spent a lot of money, got the people Joe wanted — it’s his team to turn around.” Of Hideki Matsui, he complained, “This is not the guy we signed, in terms of power.” He added that Jeff Weaver became “too much of a thrower” and that “[Jose] Contreras is not that kind of pitcher.” He also said Jason Giambi “is a mystery to me.”

After the final game of the Yankees’ 2003 American League Championship Series triumph over the Red Sox, Steinbrenner hollered at the Sox’s team bus, “Go back to Boston, boys!”  

After a one-run loss to the Blue Jays in 2004, he railed about Torre’s decision to give a sore Gary Sheffield the day at DH and start Kenny Lofton in rightfield, where his error cost the team a run. “I don’t want to see Lofton in rightfield!” he bellowed.

There were moments like that all the way into 2006. That year, when the Yankees were looking to upgrade the lineup before the trade deadline, he hollered to a gathering of reporters, “I like Bobby Abreu!’’ Two weeks later, the Yankees obtained him from the Phillies. And late in the season he critiqued Alex Rodriguez often, referring to him as “the third baseman.”

Steinbrenner Watch was no reporter’s favorite assignment. One often spent considerable time with little or nothing to show for it. Yankees fans, however, had a thirst for anything the fiery Steinbrenner had to say, especially if it was controversial.

When he felt like engaging us reporters, he often gave the fans something to quench it.

-- ROGER RUBIN

New York Sports