When I first started working in New York in 1999, I thought I knew pretty much everything I needed to know about this job. I had covered the UConn basketball team and combustible coach Jim Calhoun and along the way an Olympics, a bunch of Final Fours and assorted MLB, NFL and NBA games.
But nothing prepared me for George Steinbrenner.
One of my first jobs in 1999 came during the playoffs. The Yankees beat the Red Sox in the ALCS that season then swept the Braves in the Series. As the new guy, my job was to watch the game for seven innings or so from a seat out in the right field press area, then make my way to the sidewalk near the team parking lot and wait for Steinbrenner to emerge.
There were probably seven or eight of us, one from every paper that covered the Yankees. When Steinbrenner exited the building, we would literally surround him as he walked to a waiting car and ask questions. Sometimes he would stop, sometimes he would not.
Then the car would speed off and we would run upstairs and write a story.
The trick was to ask something specific. George liked the idea of prodding his superstars. So a good question was something along the lines of “Mr. Steinbrenner, do you think Clemens will be ready tomorrow?”
Then he’d come back with, “Oh, he better be.”
That would be enough for a story. It seems silly now, but that’s what we did.
In time, they tried to pen the reporters behind gates or block us from the sidewalk entirely. I asked a NYC cop what the rules were once and he said. “Buddy, it’s a public sidewalk. You have as much right as he does to stand here.”
I’m fairly sure that cop was a Mets fan.
The other trick was to stand a few feet further down the sidewalk then rush up when Steinbrenner got in the car. Sometimes he rolled down the window and talked then.
One time a TV cameraman stepped in our way and there was nearly a fight. Steinbrenner stopped and watched for a second, amused by the scene as all tussled for position. But then he talked for five minutes.
In time, the “Steinbrenner Watch” ended as be became more frail and stopped attending games.
I was working on a story on David Ortiz last week and e-mailed John Henry a question. He e-mailed back a courteous response, I thanked him and cut-and-pasted the answer into my story. At the time, I laughed to myself at how much easier it was to get a comment from the team owner now.
When Steinbrenner died yesterday, so did an era in baseball history. For better or worse, we’ll never see another owner who merits so much attention. Whether you care to believe it or not, he was good for the Red Sox. He made everybody raise their game.
When Henry and his partners came in, they stood up to Steinbrenner and two championships were the result. Fighting off the Yankees made the Red Sox literally unbeatable in the Series.
I can’t say I miss being on Steinbrenner Watch. But it was a lot of fun having a ringside seat for that part of baseball history.