Tampa Gives Steinbrenner What He’s Wanted From Us All Along: Love

TAMPA-The migration begins during the sixth inning of nearly every Yankee spring-training game at Legends Field. While the defending world champions go about their workmanlike preseason business, Yankee fans with programs in hand leave their seats and begin forming a line up a bank of stairs. The stairs lead to the luxury box in which principal owner George Steinbrenner is observing his hired hands, often in the company of Tampa Mayor Dick Greco or some other local person of prominence.

And then it happens. The door to the box opens, and George Steinbrenner steps out onto a small terrace and begins signing autographs. The fans giggle and squeal in the presence of greatness. Mr. Steinbrenner smiles. He is pleasant. He is genial.

He is a rock star, a civic savior, a beloved celebrity!

Who knew? The George Steinbrenner of Tampa, his adopted hometown, is a far cry from the Boss, the vein-popping, half-mad tyrant who has spent a quarter-century supplying back-page headlines for the New York tabloids. In Tampa, the newspapers, the politicians, the power brokers-they all love George. When Mr. Steinbrenner was presented with the key to the city, his friend the mayor said the gesture was redundant. And he wasn’t kidding. During Gasparilla, the Tampa equivalent of Mardi Gras, Mr. Steinbrenner rides through downtown on a Yankees float to tumultuous cheering. Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida sits beside Mr. Steinbrenner during the Florida State Fair (Mr. Steinbrenner is chairman of the Florida State Fair Authority) and thanks the owner for living in the Sunshine State. Editorial writers churn out glowing tributes to the man who has put their city on the sports map. “He’s given a great deal to this community,” said Mayor Greco. “Tampa is home for him. I recall sitting one day in the box with him at the stadium and he said, ‘You know, look at this. Why wouldn’t anybody want to live here. It’s a wonderful place.’ And George is not prone to saying those kind of things too often.”

Even the strippers at Odyssey 2001, a gentleman’s club popular with the Yankees’ minor league team and its coaching staff, love George-not that they actually know him, of course. Or have ever seen him in the, er, flesh. It’s just that Mr. Steinbrenner is a one-man industry, and he certainly has a trickle-down effect. “Oh, they all come in here, it’s great for business,” said “Porcelain,” a dancer who has entertained some Yankee farmhands.

Tampa brings out the George we’ve never gotten to know, not after 25 memorable years. If you want the essential George, the real George, you won’t find him in the owner’s box at Yankee Stadium, at a power breakfast at the Regency, or at the bar at Elaine’s. You’ll find him in Tampa, the place he has called home for a quarter-century, the city that became the winter home of the Yankees in 1996. And you’ll realize then that George Steinbrenner is, after all, a Floridian .

Actually, he is more than a mere resident. He is a local hero and idol of the masses. He owns the 257-room Radisson Bay Harbor Inn, one of the city’s premier hotels. He lavishes money on charities like the Boys and Girls Club, which named its administrative building in his honor. A wing at a local hospital bears his name. He single-handedly saved middle-school sports programs threatened by budget cuts. And he helped a deaf boy regain his hearing.

Mention Mr. Steinbrenner’s name to the people of Tampa and their voices turn solemn and reverential, passing along stories they have heard about his generosity-how he anonymously pays for his employee’s medical bills, how he writes personalized condolence cards to strangers whose tale of woe he might have read about in the morning paper.

And what does Mr. Steinbrenner get for all this? The one thing he has never, ever received in New York: love.

When Mr. Steinbrenner and Tampa met in 1975, both the man and the city were on the skids. Tampa was a bush-league town with a bad reputation, still reeling from Estes Kefauver’s investigations into its mob ties during the 1950′s. Mr. Steinbrenner, the feisty son of a shipbuilding magnate from Cleveland, had troubles of his own, having been suspended from baseball in 1974 by baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn for making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s Presidential re-election campaign (Ronald Reagan pardoned him in 1989). Fleeing his native Cleveland, Mr. Steinbrenner scoured the whole of Florida, looking for a place to dock his shipbuilding business, American Ship Building Company, and build his legend.

Nobody was surprised when he finally settled on Tampa. For all its strip-mall dreariness, Tampa is an old-school Southern town, where if you’re rich and you’re white, you’re automatically a member of the gentry. And Tampans don’t ask too many questions of its aristocrats.

Even as Mr. Steinbrenner was setting up shop, the city was beginning to view sports as a way to acquire a big-league image. (Over the next 20 years, Tampa would win franchises in the National Football League, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball.) Indeed, the city allowed itself to be re-created as a construct known as Tampa Bay. Don’t look for Tampa Bay on a map. Look for it instead in sports-marketing reports. It was a marketing genius from the defunct North American Soccer League who decided to expand Tampa’s boundaries to include nearby St. Petersburg and Clearwater in one lump by calling the city’s soccer team the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Now, all three of its major-league teams identify themselves as Tampa Bay, a city that doesn’t exist.

As with many other small cities new to the expanded major-league world, Tampa’s power elite is closely linked to sports. It is a world in which public funds flow readily, where lawyers, politicians and socialites bask in the reflected glory of hero-jocks. And Mr. Steinbrenner is at the center of it.

“When George arrived here, he aligned himself with the old Tampa people,” said Tom McEwen, a sports columnist with the Tampa Tribune and a longtime friend of Mr. Steinbrenner. “Lawyers and judges and mayors-people of influence and people of substance, longtime Tampa families. They’re friends of his.” So when Mr. Steinbrenner needed to win the approval of 12 state agencies to get the land for Legends Field, he didn’t have look far for support. Emeline Acton, the Hillsborough County attorney when the Legends Field deal was being worked out, noted that Mr. Steinbrenner has plenty of friends in high places. “George called on his friends in the county commissioners office and those high up in government. He was friends with [then-Lieut. Gov.] Buddy McKay and [then-Gov.] Lawton Chiles. He was able to get the deal worked out.”

It was during Mr. Steinbrenner’s brief courtship of Tampa in 1975 that the Yankee owner met Mr. McEwen, who was and remains the most influential columnist in the city. They became friends-when their children were younger, Mr. Steinbrenner and Mr. McEwen and their families spent Christmas Eve together. Mr. McEwen became instrumental in swaying public opinion in favor of spending taxpayer dollars for various sports projects, including construction of the Yankees’ training facility, Legends Field. And he is unapologetic about his role as a partisan booster. “Some people frown on this, but my publisher told me to get involved civically,” he said. “He endorsed the fact that I pursued things-like getting the franchises. I wrote about George and the Yankees because we all wanted them here.”

Tampa’s F.O.G. (Friends of George) said he’s simply misunderstood in New York. “I know when I go to New York and I say I know George Steinbrenner-they don’t really know him,” said Mr. Greco. “They don’t know him as we know him. I know the man. And this is his home.”

“He can be very baronical and very regal,” Mr. McEwen conceded. “He’d love to be king. I always introduce him as the guy who was born on July the 4th. That’s all right, but he would have preferred Dec. 25. There’s the awful side of George and the good side of George. He reacts just as strongly to the bad as the good.”

Mr. McEwen clearly prefers to dwell on the good, and he has the sort of stories Tampa loves to hear about their favorite citizen. “George was signing autographs for kids after a Yankee minor league game and two little kids stick little pieces of paper up for George to sign,” Mr. McEwen said. “But one kid doesn’t say anything and George says, ‘What’s the matter kid, cat got your tongue?’ And the other kid says, ‘Mr. Steinbrenner, I’m sorry but he can’t speak. He can’t hear, so he can’t speak.’ In no time the kid was on his way to New York and got [fitted for] hearing aids. And George put him up in a hotel and he went to the Yankee game. Then they brought him back here to get a speech therapist. There are a lot of stories like that.”

And then there’s the Elaine’s of Tampa, where Mr. Steinbrenner regularly presides. During his early years in Tampa, Mr. Steinbrenner met Malio Iavarone, owner of Malio’s Steak House, where the city’s elite gather for dinner and cocktails. Mr. Iavarone, who counts among his friends baseball legends Lou Piniella, Steve Garvey, Tony LaRussa and Johnny Bench (“I was at his wedding. Wonderful!”), provides Mr. Steinbrenner with a dimly lit watering hole, and Mr. Steinbrenner in turn gives the place celebrity status. Malio’s is where deals are brokered, favors are granted and friendships are made (and broken), all under the auspices of Mr. Iavarone’s peculiar Southern discretion, which simultaneously conceals and promotes his celebrity guests. Only a few weeks ago, Mr. Steinbrenner and 30 of his closest advisers gathered in Malio’s George M. Steinbrenner III Suite (located next to the room named after Mr. Piniella) and decided to trade popular pitcher David Wells for future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens.

Malio’s also was the scene of another historic deal when, in 1983, Burt Reynolds became enchanted with hostess Pam Seales, who ultimately stole the actor away from Loni Anderson. Malio’s walls are plastered with autographed pictures of Yankee players and local politicians. One picture shows Mr. Iavarone, Mr. McEwen, Mr. McKay and Mr. Steinbrenner in an embrace following the Yankees’ World Series victory in 1977. When he’s not negotiating million-dollar deals in his own suite, Mr. Steinbrenner holds court in a secluded booth. “People are always leaving the table backing away, you know, shuffling backwards, saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, George. I won’t let you down,’” said Mr. Iavarone. “I’ve seen big guys come in here and walk out like a little mouse. When George comes to the place, the whole bar lights up.” And Mr. Steinbrenner brings the goods, too. “George spends all kind of money here,” Mr. Iavarone said. “All the players spend money, all over the place. It’s the Yankees, man. You see all the ballplayers in here. Where you gonna see that?”

George Levy, a 65-year-old man with thinning black hair and a gravelly voice, runs a trophy shop in Tampa and is Mr. Steinbrenner’s tennis partner. Mr. Levy was another key organizer of Tampa’s sports boom. He was behind a citizens’ campaign in favor- in favor! -of a tax increase to pay for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ new Raymond James Stadium. He was recently named Citizen of the Year by the Civitan Club, joining his twin brother, Leonard, who was awarded the honor in 1995, and Mr. Steinbrenner, who was given the award in 1993. Mr. McEwen, another old friend, hosted this year’s ceremony. (Get the picture? This is a small town.)

From his office at the back of a shop in a shopping mall, Mr. Levy deciphered his cryptic friend as he shot through a pack of Merit Ultima 100′s. A picture of himself with Mr. Steinbrenner and Mr. McEwen hung above the desk.

“He likes the image of a tough guy,” Mr. Levy said. He told a story about a call he received when he screwed up a plaque that Mr. Steinbrenner commissioned. “We wrote George W. Steinbrenner instead of George M. Steinbrenner,” Mr. Levy said. “So he calls me up and went into this long thing … ‘Let me tell you something. Do you know, my granddaughter was looking at this plaque and she was crying.’ It was a load of B.S. His granddaughter wasn’t even there.”

On March 17, Mr. Steinbrenner held a benefit for the Boys and Girls Club of Tampa at the downtown Hyatt Regency. A host of Yankees were on a dais, silently eating their grilled chicken while team memorabilia was auctioned off. Their employer, however, sat in the audience, among his fans-and they are, after all, his fans.

Mr. McEwen and Mr. Levy were seated in their place of honor at Mr. Steinbrenner’s table. Chubby Checkers was in attendance, so was the editorial director for the Tampa Tribune , and the chief of police. Tampans came up to Mr. Steinbrenner and paid their respects. He signed more autographs than his players.

The players, after all, are just millionaires passing through.

George Steinbrenner, however, is family.