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SportsColumnistsMark Herrmann

Herrmann: The Boss would've been fired up for No. 600

This file photo shows New York Yankees owner

This file photo shows New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner waving to fans in Tampa, Fla. Steinbrenner, who rebuilt the New York Yankees into a sports empire with a mix of bluster and big bucks that polarized fans all across America, died Tuesday, July 13, 2010, in Tampa, Fla. He had just celebrated his 80th birthday July 4. (Feb. 17, 2003) Photo Credit: AP

CLEVELAND

Fate had it set up just right that Alex Rodriguez's home run chase would make its way through this city. When you trace the development of these modern Yankees, you start here, the hometown of the man who would have enjoyed this historic trek more than anyone.

Yes, George Steinbrenner, who died little more than two weeks ago, valued winning more than anything other than breathing. But he also believed in star power and big moments. Seeing the first Yankee since Babe Ruth reach 600 homers would have made him proud and gotten his motor running.

"Oh, I'm sure if this had happened when he was still with us and he had been healthy, George would have been following him around," said Mike Cleary, a local resident and executive whose claim to fame is having been the first person ever fired by Steinbrenner. That was in 1962, when Cleary was general manager of the Cleveland Pipers in the old American Basketball League.

It was at least symbolic that A-Rod spent this week in Cleveland. He finished a four-game series the way he began it, at 599 career homers. Now his pursuit of 600 moves to Tampa, Steinbrenner's adopted home and where his family still lives.

But Cleveland was where Steinbrenner began his business career. It was where he and fellow young big wheels used to meet, talk and dream during lunch downtown. It was where he nearly first became a baseball team owner, of his beloved Indians, in 1972. "That was a shame. It was a done deal," Cleary said, referring to the way Indians owner Vernon Stouffer pulled the plug at the last minute. Cleary added that Steinbrenner always kept a soft spot for Cleveland, coming back to visit after he moved his home and shipbuilding operation to Tampa.

A-Rod never played for the vintage Boss, the one of back-pages heyday. He never felt the heat beyond a mild 2004 note that said, "We're counting on you!" But Rodriguez's mere presence on the team is a continuation of Steinbrenner's swing-for-the-fences approach to acquiring players. He would have loved this star's now elongated road toward 600.

"I don't know exactly what George would have done to mark 600, but he certainly would have made sure that it was treated as a major Yankee historic event," said Marty Appel, who heads his own public relations firm after having been the Yankees assistant public relations director who hurriedly typed up the 1973 news release announcing that the man from Cleveland had become principal owner. "It would be a wonderful shared experience to be on this path with this special player."

Cleary, now executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics in Westlake, Ohio, said Steinbrenner's sister Susan technically was the first Pipers employee fired by George, but she quickly was reinstated after an appeal to their mother.

He would hire and fire many others (and befriend exiles such as Cleary). He would build a Yankees empire and establish home in Tampa. A-Rod's tour goes down there Friday night, seeking 600. He will try to do what he failed to do Thursday night, when he walked, hit a sacrifice fly, lined to right, grounded to short, hit a single to center and struck out.

In Tampa, Hal and Hank, the team's co-chairmen, are expected to attend their first Yankees game since the death of their father. "We usually see someone from the family every time we're there," Joe Girardi said.

Eyes this weekend will be on A-Rod. Minds will be on the man from Cleveland who brought in all those stars.

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