The George Steinbrenner I remember from childhood was a villain as dastardly as any I'd ever encountered in pro wrestling or comic books. Having been born in 1975, I am too young to remember the Yankees' championship teams of my early childhood. I started paying close attention in 1983, Don Mattingly's rookie year, an otherwise mediocre season in a decade full of them. To come of age as a Yankees fan in the mid-1980s was to feel as if Mattingly was all we had. Donnie Baseball could do no wrong, and as an adolescent I could not fathom why this George Steinbrenner guy would go so far out of his way to persecute him.
When I got older and began reading the sports page, my distrust of the Yankees' owner deepened. Threats to move the team to New Jersey, threats to fire whoever happened to be the manager that week, threats to send this or that player to Columbus—what kind of man treated his fans and players this way? What happened next—Steinbrenner's suspension in 1990 for paying a gambler to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield—was no easier for a kid to understand. While I was hazy on most of the details, I was not too young to realize this was an embarrassment to the Yankees. Still, I followed the team as closely as ever. After the following season, on a bit of a lark, I began writing letters to the Yankees front office asking how to become a bat boy. A few months later, rather miraculously, I was hired to work in the home clubhouse.
Steinbrenner was still suspended in 1992, my first of two seasons with the team, but his specter haunted the clubhouse. The more veteran bat boys told tales of epic blowups of years past. I bore witness, by contrast, to an awkward, earnest pre-game clubhouse pep talk delivered by Joseph Molloy, the Steinbrenner son-in-law who was appointed Yankees' managing general partner in the Boss' absence. Molloy went on to become a middle-school gym teacher in Tampa, Fla., which seems a much better fit for his rhetorical skills. The Yankees, I realized, were used to fire and brimstone. I still had never met the man, but as the team limped to a fourth-place finish, it was hard not to wonder whether Steinbrenner's absence was partly to blame.
When Steinbrenner was reinstated in March 1993, he retook the helm in typically bombastic fashion. Inside the clubhouse, the changes were swift. The Boss had apparently spent part of his time away from baseball in consultation with nutritionists from the U.S. Olympic Committee. Forthwith, we were informed by the Yankees' head trainer Gene Monahan, we were strictly forbidden from going on pre-game fast food runs for the ballplayers, who were now expected to eat only the skinned chicken breasts and leafy salads prescribed by Steinbrenner himself. No bat boy needed to ask what the penalty would be if the Boss caught you delivering fried chicken from Cuchifritos or, God forbid, an Egg McMuffin. I'm not sure who took the news harder, the players or the bat boys—food runs were easily our most reliable source of tips. Eventually, as with any other unpopular edict, the banned conduct was merely driven underground. We developed a code to signal when Steinbrenner was up from Tampa and food runs were to be undertaken with elevated levels of stealth and caution. If "Elvis was in the house," the Big Macs were to be delivered to the team's weight room, a place the Boss was unlikely to conduct a spot check.
In the end, the Steinbrenner tantrums we all feared turned out to be infrequent and mild, especially compared to the bat-splintering ones of which the ballplayers proved capable. Still, given the stories I'd heard all my life, it was hard not to fear that any interaction with the man—however casual or careless—might end with the unceremonious termination of my dream job. I remember the morning of a day game when Steinbrenner unexpectedly walked into the clubhouse players' lounge much earlier than he usually appeared. I was eating cereal for breakfast and reading the Post; another bat boy named Silverio was laid out on one of the couches, watching television. I saw Steinbrenner come in, but Silverio did not. I tried to warn him, but Silverio was too busy flipping channels to notice. As I hurriedly stood and set to alphabetizing the newspapers and buffing already-clean tables, I watched with terror as Steinbrenner walked up behind Silverio. By the time my fellow bat boy saw him, it was too late. The Boss was standing right over him.
"Hiya, George," Silverio ventured. Bold move. Not how I would have played it. I waited for the eruption.
"Are you comfortable?" Steinbrenner asked him, a trace of sarcasm in his voice. "Can I get you anything? Anything at all?"
"Nah," said Silverio guardedly. "I'm fine."
I couldn't believe what I was witnessing, and what I was sure I was about to witness. It was like watching a car crash in slow motion. I wanted to help Silverio, but I couldn't. The Boss was going to can him on the spot.
"You sure?" Steinbrenner asked, giving him what seemed to be a final chance. Silverio reflected a moment.
"Yeah," he said. "Thanks, George."
Surely Silverio will not survive this, I thought. But after a long moment standing over him, the Boss just turned and walked out. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never did. I wonder whether Silverio would have been so lucky if Steinbrenner had caught him lying down after a tough loss. And perhaps a pre-Napoleonic Steinbrenner wouldn't have been so compassionate; countless other employees of the team through the years never received such mercy. But what happened that day reflected the Boss I knew: unpredictable, much feared, and mostly benign.
In April of the 1993 season, my senior year of high school, I started hearing back from the colleges where I'd applied the previous fall. The best school I was admitted to was Williams College, which I learned only then was Steinbrenner's alma mater. When it seemed as if my parents would not be able to afford the steep tuition—even then, nearly $30,000 a year—someone in the front office suggested I write a letter to the Boss asking for help paying for books and lab fees. I wrote the letter, not really expecting much from this man whom I had never spoken to and regarded with a great deal of apprehension, as any teenage Yankee fan and grateful employee might.
A few weeks later, the team's equipment manager Nick Priore told me I was wanted upstairs, in the team's front office. I had never been summoned there before.
"Did Nick tell you why I called you up here?" the Yankees' general counsel asked.
"No," I said.
"Well," he said, "Mr. Steinbrenner received your letter, and the Yankees Foundation has decided to give you a $10,000 scholarship for your first year of college." My mom cried when I called to tell her the news.
The next time I saw Steinbrenner was in the clubhouse a few weeks later. I summoned up the courage to interrupt him as he conducted one of his purposeful walks around the clubhouse. "Boss," I blurted. "I'm Matt, the bat boy you gave the scholarship to, to Williams. I just wanted to thank you." He stopped and reached out and gripped my shoulders tightly with both hands. "I never could have gotten in there today," he told me. After a moment he slapped me on the back and walked away.
Incredibly, the Boss repeated his gift of $10,000 for my sophomore year as well. After I graduated, he sent my father a letter in which he congratulated my parents and wished me all the best. The obituaries and eulogies in the coming days will make note of Steinbrenner's volatility and obsession with winning. Generations of fans will remember him as a legendary owner who changed the way sports franchises are run. As for me, I will always be in his debt.