The most surprising part of my interview with Joe Torre tonight was his revelation – which he had first mentioned at his late afternoon news conference at Dodger Stadium – that he spoke to George Steinbrenner on July 4th to wish him a happy birthday. They had, evidently, a fairly long conversation, and that fact underscores a quality about Steinbrenner’s penultimate illness which lent it the makings of something akin to a Greek Tragedy.
Unlike most mental impairment diseases, whatever afflicted Steinbrenner from around the time he fainted at Otto Graham’s 2003 funeral, was utterly intermittent. He could be lucid and fiery at one moment, and almost incapacitated the next, and then back again. In Spring Training of 2009, as an example, I sat with David Cone during a Yankees’ exhibition game at the park in Tampa that had just been renamed in Steinbrenner’s honor. As we left the press box we found our exit path blocked, because Mr. Steinbrenner was leaving, by wheelchair. When Cone spied him, he sighed, and said “I have to try to say hello to him; he hasn’t recognized me the last few times.”
The next thing I heard was “Of course I recognize you, David. Jesus! Could we have used you pitching out there today! The way they knocked our kids around. You look like you’re still in shape, will you pitch tomorrow? Good to see you!” And then, “Hey, Keith, good to see you too!” A month later I saw them carrying him, prostrate and blank-eyed, in and out of golf carts and elevators, for the opening of the new Yankee Stadium.
Back to Torre. He was fearless about suggesting the sad truth of Steinbrenner’s life: that he was never satisfied, and ultimately may not have been happy. Clearly there were moments of joy, but as Joe observed at his news conference, and as Ken Burns repeated on the show, even the triumphs were followed with the almost obsessive attempt to continue, or repeat, or exceed, usually beginning the moment the champagne stains had dried in the locker room.
Still, of course, the memories come flooding back. I recounted tonight how, during the near-riot in the infamous Phantom Tag Game in the American League Championship Series of 1999, our Fox game producers ordered me as field reporter onto the field and in front of our third base camera, and Fenway Park security just as quickly ordered me off the field and into the box: “You sit in that seat there, or I’ll eject you from the yahd.” I sat down, adrenalin pumping, and heard a voice to my left. “Hi Keith! Some night!” It was Steinbrenner. They had put me in – of all places – his box. He agreed to do an interview with me at game’s end (“if we live”) but warned me he wouldn’t say anything interesting. I asked him only one question and all he said was that Boston manager Jimy Williams had “incited the crowd” and thus made himself the story.
One more favorite encounter, one George never knew about. I was 22 and working as part of my future ESPN co-conspirator Charley Steiner’s three-man sports staff at the RKO Radio Network (Charley was the boss, I was the weekend sportscaster, and John “Chief” Martin – now ESPN’s crack radio honcho for MLB and NBA broadcasts, was the producer). The dreadful, dismal 1981 baseball strike was in its umpteenth day and news was drying up. Suddenly a story broke that a bunch of owners had reached a similar stage of hatred of the impasse and had decided to try to talk Commissioner Bowie Kuhn into a palace coup against the hardline owners who had forced the walkout. Nobody was even sure exactly who the owners were. All we knew was that the insurrectionaries were going to meet with Kuhn.
All Charley knew was that he wanted to be there and scoop everybody in the process. He called John and me in, to work the phones from late morning until we could tell him when and where the meeting was scheduled. Nothing worked. We called everybody we knew, and a lot of people we didn’t, and at one point I actually suggested to John that we might as well just start dialing any ten digit combinations at random and asking whoever answered if they knew anything about the meeting.
Around 10 PM, I gave up and walked home from Times Square to my tiny apartment at 55th Street and 2nd Avenue. Since I had spent the day making these pointless calls, I hadn’t eaten, and thus my ramble took me just slightly off my normal route. I wound up at a pizza parlor on the Northwest corner of 55th and 3rd, instead of my usual Southeast corner. Thus, pizza box in hand, and my RKO Radio Network and Motorcycle Gang Black Vinyl Jacket on my back, I crossed the intersection onto the Northeast side, right past the venerable New York bar, P.J. Clarke’s.
Suddenly the side door to Clarke’s opened and out bounded who else but George Steinbrenner, headed to a limo parked on 55th. I was too far away and too generic in his estimation to get to him to ask him if he knew anything about the Kuhn meeting, and was silently damning both my luck and anonymity. Suddenly he wheeled around and yelled back to the still-open door. “Hey, Eddie!” A balding figure peeked out from the light of the doorway. It was Edward Bennett Williams, the famed attorney and then-owner of the Baltimore Orioles. “Eddie! When the hell are you and I and Chiles having that meeting with Bowie tomorrow?”
I slammed myself against the wall of Clarke’s so neither of them would see me, nor the big red words “RADIO NETWORK” on the back of my jacket. Williams answered calmly. “Bowie’s apartment, George, 10:30.” He even gave the address. Steinbrenner merrily waved good night and jumped into the limo. I ran to my apartment building, balancing the pizza box as I did, and phoned John at the office.
“The meeting is at Bowie Kuhn’s apartment,” I began, with fake calm. “10:30 tomorrow morning. I know Steinbrenner will be there, and Edward Bennett Williams, and Eddie Chiles from Texas.” John, who to my knowledge has not otherwise been both silent and awake since some time in the late 1950’s, was dumbfounded. Mixed with a series of original and appreciative expletives, he asked me how I could have possibly found out.
“Oh,” I replied with an air of sophistication I’m sure I didn’t come close to carrying off. “I ran into Steinbrenner at Clarke’s.”