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Bodley: Moments with The Boss

Bodley: Moments with The Boss

ANAHEIM -- It was a ritual. Each spring George Steinbrenner and I would get together, usually in his memorabilia-cluttered Legends Field office in Tampa, and talk baseball. The sessions, sometimes combative, were priceless.

George Michael Steinbrenner III died on Tuesday at the age of 80. All those moments with him, from the early years when he was a terror, to most recently when failing health made him a recluse, flashed by.

The last of these moments was on Feb. 27, 2006.

Steinbrenner, wearing a blue denim shirt with the familiar NY emblem on the pocket, sat behind his large desk, clasped his hands behind his neck and said, "Yes," he had mellowed.

"But not mellow-mellow," he said. "I'm still The Boss."

I swallowed hard and asked him how he felt.

"Every morning, I get up about 7:30 and work out at home -- I've got a setup there -- for an hour or more. I lift weights and do a lot of exercises. I don't do any running because of my knees. I feel as good as I have in years."

Pausing, he added: "If you can't sit in the saddle, you can't lead the charge!"

When I left his office after several hours that day, there was this nagging thought that the Steinbrenner I'd known since the 1970s no longer had the vim and vigor that was such a trademark. There was no fire.

The phone calls to complain about a story I'd written in USA TODAY, or about the Yankees' play or an ownership issue ceased. When I'd call his office for reaction for a story he never called back. Howard Rubenstein, his publicist, would return the call and dictate a statement.

I asked George about this once, because there had been questions about his health after he collapsed at a memorial service for Otto Graham in Sarasota, Fla., on Dec. 27, 2003.

"I was in the press too much," Steinbrenner told me, and I knew it was a white lie. "So many times they'd write not what I said, but something else. I just got tired of that, having to explain myself. So now I'd rather think about what I'm going to say, give it to Howard and let him release it for me."

The words were empty. Steinbrenner coveted the back pages of the New York tabloids, a master at manipulating the toughest media in the world. He loved the attention.

This is an irreverent and maybe unkind thought, but even in death Steinbrenner is vintage Steinbrenner.

The Boss would often irritate MLB executives when he'd dismiss a manager, trade a player, or make a controversial statement during a premier event to take over the tabloids' back page. It got to the point where Commissioner Bud Selig issued an edict that major announcements couldn't be made during these events without his permission.

He wanted to put a stop to The Boss's antics.

So, it comes as no surprise that George Steinbrenner's passing will, certainly in New York, upstage the 81st All-Star Game. Somewhere up there he might be chuckling.

The Steinbrenner I want to remember today -- and forever -- is the man who, after buying the most prestigious franchise in professional sports in 1973 for $10 million, became the most powerful owner of any league. I loved his bluster, his piercing quotes and his behind-the-scenes acts of kindness and generosity that he often refused to make public.

In 2002, my wife's aunt was suffering from what was believed to be a brain tumor. Doctors in her Sarasota hospital recommended surgery. Because Steinbrenner was so active in the area, I called him and asked if he could recommend a surgeon.

Within minutes he had his doctor return the call with a recommendation. The surgery was successful and the aunt is as active as can be at 91.

That was the George Steinbrenner I'll remember.

And also the Steinbrenner who yanked me from my press-box seat during a World Series game, marched me into the video room at Yankee Stadium and blurted: "Now you look at that play! Was Jeter safe or out? Write that! I can't believe the umpiring."

During our meeting in 2005, he was hurting.

The year before, the Yankees had another pennant in their grasp, but the Red Sox held the key to miracles with three outs to go in the American League Championship Series. Boston, of course, went on to win the World Series over St. Louis.

"They were a good team, and they beat us," he told me and there was hurt in his eyes. "That's all, they just beat us. But they'll find out when you're the champion coming back, it's hard to repeat. That's the hardest thing in the world to do."

It was at that moment, knowing he'd slowed down so much, I asked how long he wanted to rule the world's No. 1 sports franchise.

There was little hesitation: "The kids, the boys are coming in, doing more and more. You have to let the young elephants into the tent."

Another time, we were going to lunch at his Bay Harbor Inn in Tampa.

As we walked down a long hall to the restaurant, he spotted a crumbled piece of paper on the floor and picked it up. For the next 10 minutes he berated the hotel staff for not picking up the trash. Our waitress was so nervous she almost dropped the dishes. That was vintage Steinbrenner.

During an unusually calm chat one afternoon, I talked about growing up as the son of a bank president who seemingly was never pleased with my childhood achievements.

"Sounds familiar," said The Boss. He put his hands on the table and looked off far across the room. "I tried desperately to please my father, but I came up short. He was a tough taskmaster and maybe that's why I'm so demanding. When I took up hurdling in track, I could win three races and lose just one, but he'd come to the meet and in the car going home would say, 'Sit down and study that one race and see why you lost it.'"

He was twice suspended from baseball and paid fines for disciplinary actions of about $650 million. Front-office employees found him almost impossible to work for and were frequently fired for some mundane reason.

He was suspended by then-Commissioner Fay Vincent in 1990 for making a $40,000 payment to a confessed gambler (Howard Spira) to supply unfavorable information about outfielder Dave Winfield.

Steinbrenner was critical of my reporting of the suspension in USA TODAY and promised to never talk to me again. But soon after he returned to control the Yankees in 1993 he agreed to grant me an interview.

Once, when he called years earlier, I was on the tractor mowing my lawn. My wife told him I'd call him back when I finished. He never forgot.

When I requested the interview after he resumed control of the Yankees, he called to set it up.

My wife answered and when he asked for me, he bellowed: "Where's Bodley, out on the tractor again?"

A few days later, I walked into his office and he met me at the door. "We have to turn the page," he said. "Let's bury the hatchet, Bodley."

That was Steinbrenner.

His teams won seven World Series titles and 11 American League pennants.

It was pointed out that by 1990 he had switched managers 18 times and had 13 general mangers since buying the team.

That prompted me to write: "George Steinbrenner has issued more pink slips than Victoria's Secret."

The phone rang.

"But you didn't say that many of them became members of the Yankees family and remain with us," he said in a rather loud voice. "We take care of them. Look it up."

Sadly, now the New York Yankees and baseball will never be the same and for that the heart is heavy.

I know he's going to put together a championship team in heaven.

Fore up there, here comes The Boss!

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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