George Steinbrenner was evil incarnate in my childhood home. He, as any member of my family would readily assert, "ruined baseball," or at least plenty of summers in Maryland.
It was with that indoctrination that I formed preconceived notions about this gruff, volatile man as I began a career as a sports reporter. On my first occasion to actually speak with him, while covering thoroughbred horse racing for the St. Petersburg Times, I had already scripted out in my mind the inevitable failure of the interview with this curmudgeon before I ever made my first call to the office he kept in Tampa.
But I made the call anyway, asking his long-time secretary if I could steal a few minutes of his time, eliciting a polite but noncommittal tone in her voice. It didn't sound like this was going to happen. Of course it wasn't.
Remembering a bit of advice from an veteran co-worker who had danced with this devil throughout the years, I interjected, "This isn't about baseball. It's about horse racing."
"Oh," she said, more energetically. "I'll tell him."
The call ended and I went about finding another interview subject to buoy the story where Steinbrenner had failed me. Twenty minutes later the phone rang in my cubicle.
"Brant!," boomed the voice.
It was ridiculous, a Seinfeld parody. He really barked into the phone in that absurd, abrupt style. More amazingly ... George Steinbrenner had returned my call. And he was a gracious, informative interview. He spoke at length about the joys of the Kinsman Farm breeding and racing operation he owned in Ocala. A man so renowned for milling through free agent talent, managers and general managers like so much chaff extolled the joys of breeding his own horses and the accomplishments his son, Hank, had made as a horseman. He was never emotional or incredibly introspective. But he spoke in factoids and blurbs that illuminated an unexpected facet of his personality. The conversations would end abruptly, as if his train of thought or allotment of valuable time for me had expired. He would declare he had to go, and then he went. But it was always worth the call.
I enjoyed several more interviews with Steinbrenner until the spring of 2005 when one his finest Kentucky Derby prospects, a strapping Wood Memorial-winner named Bellamy Road, was about, I hoped, to become a national story. Steinbrenner told me twice that winning at horses was by far more difficult than baseball, and a Kentucky Derby, though he never actually said it, seemed to be the great undone thing in his life as one of America's last true sportsmen.
Confident of my rapport with Steinbrenner, I promised my editors a tale of how Steinbrenner had built his racing empire so conversely to the Yankees, eschewing high-dollar yearlings, campaigning this homebreds and frugal auction purchases to national success and, again, America's greatest race. I rang his office one April morning, made the typical request with his secretary and waited for a quick reply.
And waited. And waited.
Days passed. Two weeks. Steinbrenner had betrayed me when I most needed him.
A day before my deadline, flailing in my cubicle for a backup plan, I received a phone call.
"George Steinbrenner. Look, Brant, I want to apologize. Apparently there was some problem getting me your message a few weeks back, but I've remedied that situation."
Christ. Had he fired his secretary over a missed message? Had she been Billy Martined? No time for that. (And I never actually did bother to find out. I know. Idiot) The Boss was talking the first Saturday in May and I was hammering out notes barely fast enough to keep up. Steinbrenner spoke with urgency I'd never heard from him over a horse, but he would never admit how much a Derby win would mean to him. Seven minutes into the interview, the egg timer ran out again.
"You need to talk to Eddie Sexton, my farm manager," he said. "He'll talk to you."
Steinbrenner's patience with being the center of the tale quickly vaporized, and he granted just two – that I found - other interviews on the topic, with reporters he'd known for decades.
Sexton was a candid sort whose demeanor fit well with Steinbrenner. He was an extra in Braveheart. Seriously. And the Irishman wouldn't have wasted his time on an interview with a reporter unless ordered. That he told me right off. And then he told me a tale I still relish writing to this day. Because I was seeing the man with new eyes like, I hope, many readers, whatever their preconceived notions had been.
Bellamy Road went into the Derby as a 5-2 favorite but foundered in at seventh. Steinbrenner resolutely instructed long-time trainer Nick Zito to "just keep trying."
I never had occasion to call Steinbrenner again. And maybe for the best. He'd taught me a lesson in perception, though I'd clearly benefitted from a topic that disarmed him. He'd provided me one of the most memorable anecdotes of my career. He'd been good to me, and that was all I could ask. As for that secretary ... I should look into that.