‘Great to See Ya’: How I Got the Last Interview With the Boss

steinbrenner 4 getty ‘Great to See Ya’: How I Got the Last Interview With the BossGeorge Steinbrenner’s signature was barely dry on the New York Yankees bill of sale when I mailed him a letter asking for a job. I was a 21-year-old senior at Antioch College and an unreconstructed wiseass. I wrote George that I had what it took to be a great public-relations man: “A flamboyant wit, flashing charm and a killer instinct.”

A week later I received a letter: “Dear Mr. Lidz, I agree that anyone with a flamboyant wit, flashing charm and a killer instinct should be able to find a position with little difficulty but, unfortunately, there are no openings with the Yankees at the present time.” It was signed, “George M. Steinbrenner III.”

I graduated, gave up driving a bus and became a wiseass senior writer at Sports Illustrated. On assignment for SI, I had numerous encounters with the Boss, who loved sparring with sportswriters almost as much as bullying employees. In 1986, he found out I was profiling his oldest son (and heir apparent), Hank, and threatened to revoke the magazine’s Yankee Stadium press credentials indefinitely. (The story never ran.) Fourteen years later, all was forgiven, or, more likely, forgotten. When I told him during a interview that I lived on a farmette in Pennsylvania, he invited me to his office for a powwow. We spent a pleasant afternoon talking barnyard fowl.

Growing up on a gentleman’s farm in Bay Village, Ohio, young George peddled hens and their eggs door to door. How did you whack your chickens? I asked. “Two ways,” he said. “I’d either hit them with an ax and cut their heads off, or slit their throats and drain their blood by hanging them by their feet. Neither was pleasant for me at all.” Whacking managers, of course, was something else again.

When I told George that he didn’t seem the type to keep all his eggs in one basket, he sighed and said, “I learned a lot about business from raising chickens.” From then on, I pictured George less as a ferocious lion in winter than a strutting rooster-chest puffed, hackles raised, crowing about his conquests.

Chicken George is what I expected during the summer of 2007 when he gave me what would turn out to be his final interview. Condé Nast Portfolio had assigned me to write a feature on the line of succession of the most famous franchise in American sports. For three months, I tried to reach the Boss, who had been in nearly silent retreat since fainting at a friend’s memorial service in 2003. He now spoke to the media in canned statements issued through his designated mouthpiece, the New York PR guru Howard Rubenstein. His handlers insisted the Boss’ mind was as sharp as ever. But George’s Howard Hughes-like reclusivity fueled rumors that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

I sought out Tom McEwen, the onetime sports editor of The Tampa Tribune. He and Steinbrenner had been golfing buddies since 1973, the year the Boss bought the Yanks and moved to Tampa. But they hadn’t talked in more than a year. “I’ve heard all the speculation,” Mr. McEwen told me. “I hope he’s O.K.” The 84-year-old Mr. McEwen accompanied me to Steinbrenner’s home, which borders the Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club in downtown Tampa.

“I don’t care if George gets mad,” he said. “At this age, what can he do to me?” As my rental car idled near the entrance of the Steinbrenner compound, the black wrought-iron gates parted and another car drove out. Mr. McEwen said, “Let’s go in.” We did.

Mr. McEwen asked a portly gardener in a Yankees T-shirt, “Is George home?” The gardener nodded. “Tell him Tom is here to see him,” Mr. McEwen said. The gardener disappeared into the house. We parked in the driveway, and I helped Mr. McEwen out of the car and into his wheelchair. Then I pushed him to the front porch, and we waited. Five minutes later, a solitary figure emerged out of the shadows, limping toward us. It was 2 in the afternoon, and George was wearing slippers, silk pajamas and a terry-cloth robe-all Yankee blue. A diamond-encrusted World Series ring nearly as big as a Ritz cracker obscured his wedding ring. George didn’t recognize me, but when he saw Mr. McEwen, a big goofy grin spread across his face. “Great to see ya, Tommy,” he exclaimed.

“Great to see you, George,” Mr. McEwen said. He introduced me as a writer working on a story and asked about Steinbrenner’s wife, Joan. “Great to see ya, Tommy,” George repeated. Then he repeated it again. And again.

And again.

Mr. McEwen asked about his health. George sighed heavily and muttered, “Oh, I’m all right.”

He didn’t look all right. In fact, he looked dreadful. I wrote: “His body is bloated; his jawline has slackened into a triple chin; his skin looks as if a dry-cleaner bag has been stretched over it. Steinbrenner’s face, pale and swollen, has a curiously undefined look. His features seem frozen in a permanent rictus of careworn disbelief.”

I asked George whom he wanted to succeed him. He ignored me. That was the last sign of the old George.

A few minutes later, he started repeating himself again. “Great to see ya, Tommy,” he said in response to every question. “Great to see ya.”

Mr. McEwen thanked his old friend for receiving us and said goodbye. Steinbrenner waved and grinned. As I wheeled Mr. McEwen to the car, he whispered, “It’s the strangest thing. George didn’t want us to go, yet he didn’t want us to stay.” I looked back at the Yankees owner, who was still waving. “Great to see ya, Tommy. Great to see ya.” Then he turned and limped back into the house.

“I’m shocked,” Tom told me. “George doesn’t even seem like the same person. I figured he might be in a bad way, but I never expected this.”

To my great surprise, my story was a bombshell, the first confirmation of George’s declining health. It made the cover of the Post and the Daily News. To Yankees apologists, I was the embodiment of the venal, mendacious Fleet Street hacks in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop.

I do take exception to a description in Bill Madden’s new Steinbrenner tell-all. Madden insinuates that I “duped” Mr. McEwen. If Mr. Madden had actually read my story (instead of just cribbing from it), he would have realized that Mr. McEwen invited me to Florida to help answer his own questions about Steinbrenner’s health. Indeed, his parting words to me were: “Franz, you’ve got one hell of a story. Don’t be afraid to reveal the truth. Run with it.” So much for being “duped.”

As a target of George’s wrath and a recipient of his generosity, I’m sad to see him go. I found him almost endearing, especially after our conversation about poultry. I reminded George that he had once compared pitcher Hideki Irabu to a toad, and asked him if he ever likened one of his players to a chicken. “Everyone has his own level of courage, tolerance and pain,” George said, sternly. “I’d never call any player a chicken.”

Except, he conceded, Chicken Stanley.

editorial@observer.com