When Derek Jeter found all of those condolence messages on his voice mail Tuesday morning, he thought at first that a family member had died. When he learned that George Steinbrenner had passed away, he thought again and then decided, "Well, it is a family member.
"Not immediate family, but a family member," the team captain said Friday before the Yankees' game against the Rays and a moving ceremony honoring Steinbrenner (and public-address announcer Bob Sheppard, who died Sunday). "You spend a lot of time together . . ."
Jeter said his relationship with The Boss was more than owner-player; and they were both guys from the Midwest who found homes in New York and Tampa.
The All-Star, multititle-winning shortstop did agree that it was appropriate that on Friday night, the New York team was playing against Tampa. The insatiable drive that Steinbrenner had displayed since 1973 as head of the Yankees was especially tweaked by games against the team based in the city where Steinbrenner lived and where Jeter lives in the offseason.
A trip to play the Rays in an exhibition game was unlike the usual breezy Florida excursions, when many of the regulars would get to stay behind. "He would bring everybody over to a spring training game - we'd have four of our starting five pitchers,'' Jeter said. "He never wanted to be embarrassed. In his mind, it was almost like an embarrassment, losing in his hometown. We were well aware that we were supposed to play well against Tampa."
When asked if Steinbrenner took special interest in Rays games, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said: "Oh, he did. George wanted to keep it a Yankee town, in a sense."
Rays manager Joe Maddon, who never met Steinbrenner, said: "Whether you were with the Anaheim Angels or Tampa Bay Devil Rays, you always wanted to beat the Yankees. I never really realized the scope of the Tampa-New York thing. It's one of those things that's out of your control, but I find it fascinating."
That was emblematic of Steinbrenner's personality, which also fell into the "fascinating" category. "He expected perfection," Jeter said. "He spoke his mind, he challenged his players. If you couldn't take it, you couldn't play here. Everyone was aware of that. It could be tough at times. It's really tough on guys who didn't come up in the organization and came over here and sort of came out of leftfield, but for me, I enjoyed it."
Said Jeter: "I think that here, he was known more for being owner of the Yankees. I think in Tampa he was known more for what he did in the community."
He is sure Steinbrenner won't be forgotten, especially by players who wear pinstripes the next half-century. "I just want them to know that the reason they're in this stadium is because of Mr. Steinbrenner. That's all they really need to know," Jeter said. "This is a guy who gave everything for this organization. I think they'll know that."