It has been over 24 hours since the world received the shocking and sad news that George Steinbrenner had passed away, which means that approximately 100,000 people have already beaten me to the punch and written their tributes to the man that changed baseball. Many have called him a visionary, a pioneer, a humanitarian, and a world class jerk. All of these titles were certainly true of the man in the blue blazer, whose personality ranged as much as the voice of an opera singer. However, it would seem that anyone with a computer and a forum has chosen to express these thoughts and claim them as their own. I have read countless articles already, and very few have given me any new information about Mr. Steinbrenner.
With that said, I want to pay tribute to the Yankees late owner, but I certainly have no interest in merely parroting the thoughts of so many others. I almost wish I had gotten wind of this story earlier, as it might have been suiting to combine my thoughts on Steinbrenner with those on Bob Sheppard. Of course, the great Steinbrenner would never approve of having to share an obituary with anyone else, so perhaps it's better this way. What I'd like to do is share a personal story, one that links me to The Boss forever. It is the one thing I have that cannot be told by anyone else, and I hope this provides some of you with something new on George M. Steinbrenner III.
A wise man once said "nothing is better than your first time". I'm not sure who that was, but I know it to be true in regards to baseball fanaticism. After years of mediocrity and the heartbreak of the 1995 ALDS, there was no greater triumph than the Yankees World Series victory over the Atlanta Braves in 1996. As a young 12 year old, this was my greatest moment. For those younger fans, realize that the Yankees had never won a championship in my lifetime, so this was huge. I remember nervously watching each and every game during that playoff run. When the Yanks dropped the first 2 games of the World Series, so too did my optimism and my heart. As the tides changed and the momentum shifted, magic seemed to fill the air. When Charlie Hayes snapped his glove on that final out, I fell to my knees in pure jubilation. Years of struggle finally came to an end in that moment, and I was elated. Suffice to say, when I was offered the chance to go to Yankee training camp the following winter, I could not say yes fast enough.
My family went to Florida every winter, and normally the trip consisted of golf, shopping, and dinner at the club. It was the typical New York Jewish vacation. This time would be different though. We would make the 5 hour drive from Boca Raton to Tampa, en route to get the closest view of the men I called my heroes.
All I could think about on the drive up was meeting Paul O'Neill. The gritty, intense right fielder had quickly become my favorite player, as his drive for perfection and his heart-on-his-sleeve mentality were traits that I posessed as a young athlete as well. I dreamed of shaking Paul's hand, posing for a picture, and wishing him luck as he signed my baseball with a smile on his face. "Good luck kid. We'll see you up with the big club in a few years" is what I envisioned my hero saying to me. Wishful thinking perhaps, but nonetheless, every second in that car got me closer to my dream.
As the exits passed by, I waited for my grandpa to say "there it is! just a couple of minutes away!" After what seemed like days, I finally heard some variation of that and my slumped body perked up like bird with the rising sun. My eyes began to focus on my surroundings, and in the distance, Legends Field started to come into focus. While not as grandiose as Yankee Stadium, I was excited at the opportunity this shrunken house of grandeur would present me in a matter of minutes. As we pulled into the parking lot, I couldn't contain my excitement and started to ramble on about how we would buy a baseball and meet all my favorites. In the midst of my rambling, I noticed something in the corner of my eye.
Strolling towards our car was a man that I had seen and heard of from afar. He was the owner of my beloved Yankees, and he appeared in my window just as he had appeared in my television more times than I can remember.
His eyes glared into our car, expressing the disdain that I'm sure all of his former and current employees had felt from time to time. My grandpa rolled down the window nonchalantly and said "Hello there!"
"Do you people work here?" The Boss asked.
"No, we're here so my grandkids can see the Yankees" my grandpa replied, with no regard as to who he was talking to.
"Well, you're in the players lot. The fans parking lot is around the corner."
"Oh, thank you"
As my grandpa was about to roll up his window, I whispered to my grandma "that's George Steinbrenner. He owns the Yankees!"
My grandma, never one to by shy with anyone, yells out "excuse me! my grandson knows who you are! Can you sign an autograph?"
From what I knew about Mr. Steinbrenner at this point, he was to be feared. However, he took in my grandma's sentiment and said "Sure, what's his name?"
"I'm Eric" I said. Those were the first words I ever spoke to a billionaire, and they were well worth it. Of course, all we could find in the car was a small pad with pink hearts on the front, so my grandma handed this monstrosity to the boss and he graciously signed it 'To Eric, George Steinbrenner'.
I was glowing when he handed the pad back, so I yelled out "Thank you! Good luck next season!"
"Thanks. Have a nice day folks" were the last words of our encounter with George Steinbrenner.
It was still so surreal to me that I had met the owner of the Yankees. As we made our way to the right parking lot, I sat speechless, admiring the inked letters on this ridiculous pad. I vowed that day that I would always keep the pad so as to always remember that encounter.
The rest of the day was a success as well, as I met Derek Jeter, Joe Torre, and Willie Randolph. As exciting as all of them were (Jeter the most since he legitimately talked to me for like 10 minutes), they all paled in comparison to being in the overwhelming presence of the man that signed all their checks. I left Legends Field on cloud nine that day. How could I not? I met the future captain, the manager, and the owner of my favorite team of all time!
I kept my word, and to this day, I still have that pad. Adorned on lined paper is the reminder of that encounter I had with the man who brought me my championships. His penchant for winning certainly appeased me as a young fan, and I am thankful to this day for the memories that I have of those winning years. I'm pretty sure that I am the owner of the world's most valuable pink heart pad, because how many could possibly be signed by the greatest sports owner of all time? Despite the value, I will never sell it, as it will forever stay with me as a reminder of that fateful day. On that day, I was blessed to have met George Steinbrenner, and it saddens me to think that kids will no longer be able to benefit from their grandfather's mistakes in that way.
We all know the facts about George Steinbrenner, but I'm thankful to have had even the smallest taste of who he was personally. I know that his passion drove the Yankees for a lot of years, and I suspect that his spirit will keep the Yankees going for quite some time. I am thankful that he owned my team and brought me 5 World Series Championships in my lifetime, but moreso than that, I am thankful that for just a few minutes, George Steinbrenner graced my life. I wish the Steinbrenner family all the best as they go through this grieving process, and I hope we all can remember Mr. Steinbrenner for his kind heart over any negative image he's ever been given. My pink heart pad will always serve as a reminder to the good heart of the infamous Yankee owner.