Thought processes and conversations started under the tilted cap of Tropicana Field. Someday everyone will know the Rays play in St. Petersburg, Florida, not TAMPA, or the fictitious city of TAMPA BAY.
I was sadden today when I heard of the passing of a true modern gladiator. A man who befriended me years ago, who always greeted me with a handshake and a smile. A great business tycoon who always had the heart of a true baseball fan. In life we sometimes meet people who leave a lasting mark on us inside forever just by their warmth and love for the game of baseball. I can honestly say that George Steinbrenner is the only Yankee fan I admire and respect for his devotion and strides to change the face of baseball for the betterment of the fans and the league as a whole.
Steinbrenner sometimes got a raw deal because of his deep and passionate drive towards his love of the game. His devotion and commitment to the game of baseball is as legendary as his strife within his own Yankee organization. I could easily see him being the man to quote, “You got to break a few eggs to make a perfect omelete”. But even through that period of strife, there was a respect and admiration for a man who could spin a simple blue pinstripe into Mida’s gold.
I can not imagine or fathom what the New York Yankees might have evolved into if Steinbrenner had not taken the team’s reigns and lead them through their rough years. But even with numerous stories of turmoil and bitter fighting, the team became a stronger unit, a beacon in the baseball marketplace, and ultimately, an International baseball icon. All of this was done under a shipbuilder’s watch, and we as a baseball nation are glad to have known him….even if it was from a distance.
I first met Steinbrenner outside the Sheraton Hotel on Kennedy Blvd before the 2001 Super Bowl held in Tampa, Florida. Steinbrenner had come down to see the owner of the New York Giants as the team assembled in the hotel foyer before heading off to Raymond James Stadium to take on the Baltimore Ravens. I was standing outside near the valet area when Steinbrenner walked out and commented on my Tampa Bay Rays hat.
I quickly acknowledged his comment and told him to please be nice to our ex-Rays guy Dwight Gooden, who had been working for the Yankees organization after a rough patch in his personal life. Steinbrenner looked at me and smiled and liked my sense of compassion for Gooden and asked if I was going to the Super Bowl. I commented that I did not have the funds to adequately acquire any tickets and Steinbrenner waved to his bodyguard/driver to come to us.
We talked for a few more minutes about baseball and the Yankees legacy, Steinbrenner asked me for my name and local address. He then excused himself for a few minutes and his bodyguard/driver got my information and talked to me for a few minutes himself. I remarked how great it must be to work for such a symbol of commerce and business integrity. The bodyguard looked at me and told me ” Steinbrenner is stern, firm but totally loyal to his employees if they showed the same qualities and respect to him”.
We both stood there a few minutes, then Steinbrenner came back with a envelope and handed it to me. He told me to have a great day and that he would be sending me something special soon. I was in awe at the moment and as he got into his car, I could only babble and say thank you a million times. But I had still not opened the envelope and he noticed that. Steinbrenner asked me why I had not opened the envelope yet.
Steinbrenner told me “true fans sometimes need to be rewarded”.
As he rolled up his window. I clutched the envelope and walked out of the Sheraton foyer then walked across the street to a small shopping center where my car was located and noticed that Steinbrenner had pulled into the gas station. I went up and asked his driver if I might be able to ask Mr. Steinbrenner for a photo. He chuckled and told me “it might make his day”. I approached the car window and got more nervous as it rolled down.
I somehow mustered the courage to ask one of the most important men in baseball to take a photo with me. Steinbrenner was more than happy to take a photo with me and asked if I had opened the envelope yet. I
told him I had not opened it yet, but was saving the moment until I got back to my car in case I was going to jump and scream like a schoolgirl. He laughed at that moment and the end of that laugh is captured on the photo of the two of us on that corner of Westshore and Kennedy, just a few miles from his old Tampa home.
It is still one of my most cherished photos, and one I enjoy displaying on my collectibles shelf. I was a bundle of nerves after that photo and decided to head to a nearby sub shop and have lunch.
After I ordered my food, I sat down at a small white table with my beverage and stared at the envelope wondering what might be inside. I quickly tore the top off the envelope. Inside that envelope was a note from Steinbrenner asking me to contact him during Spring Training at the Yankees complex in Tampa.
Tucked inside that note was also two tickets to the game and I suddenly gasped and someone in the shop asked if I was okay. I told them the greatest guy in the world had just given me two tickets to the Super Bowl and all I gave him was a few moments of my time.
I met Steinbrenner several times after that day while performing my duties as the Tampa Bay Rays Pepsi representative. He had a great suite on the 200 level at Tropicana Field, and when I saw he was in attendance, I used to go up and give a cordial welcome and shake his hand. I have a lot of respect for George Steinbrenner both as a man, and as an icon of stability in baseball. It saddens me that he will not be able to take in the splendor and the pageantry tonight as the 81st All-Star game commences tonight. I can just imagine the level of pride and honor that envelopes him during such events.
Steinbrenner loved this game with the same overflowing passion and honest commitment that millions of us attest to every day. The Yankees would not be as strong or as mighty without this man’s demeanor and devotion to achieving excellence. Steinbrenner was known by millions around the World as “The Boss”, but for that one moment in 2001 in Tampa, Florida, I considered him my true baseball friend.
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