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Yankees owner George Steinbrenner is pillar of Tampa community

12:36 PM, May 20, 2010   |    comments
George Steinbrenner
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LUTZ, Florida - High schools often carry the name of a church saint, president or other historical figure, so in this northern Tampa suburb there is George Steinbrenner High, a nod to "The Boss," the principal owner of the New York Yankees and one of the most controversial forces in baseball history.

The school, which opened in the fall and has an enrollment of about 1,600, features the staple subjects of English, math and science as well as a program called BOSS, an acronym for the Business of Sports at Steinbrenner that offers students classes in sports marketing, sports medicine and agricultural science for future groundskeepers.

Although the Yankees were considered, the school's nickname is the Warriors, one of Steinbrenner's favorite terms for an athlete. The school colors are navy blue and gold, and, yes, the baseball uniforms are pinstriped with no names on the backs.

"Certainly this wasn't the usual way of naming a school," says MaryEllen Elia, superintendent of Hillsborough County Schools. "But when one of our board members suggested it, the board talked for five minutes and voted unanimously to name it after Steinbrenner. We are committed to the people who support our schools and community."

Steinbrenner earned millions as a shipping magnate in Ohio and has won seven World Series titles leading the Yankees in New York, but Tampa is where he has made his home since the early 1970s and developed a legacy in stark contrast to his image as a free-spending, short-tempered villain. Instead, the 79-year-old billionaire is known in these parts for his community spirit and philanthropic ways.

Today, the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays will conclude a two-game series at Yankee Stadium after the Rays dominated their AL East rivals Wednesday night. But more than a thousand miles down the Eastern Seaboard, a Yankees broadcast will be carried on a Tampa Bay-area radio station, and a faction of local fans will pull for the Yankees, some not just because they're New York transplants.

"I know how the rest of the country views Steinbrenner, but he's very important to our city," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio says. "He's been incredibly generous to charity, especially with children.

"Here we think of him as one of us, a man with a big heart. If you started listing all the things that he does for our community, it would take a long time."

Appreciative of recognition

Steinbrenner is in declining health and has turned over operation of the Yankees to his sons, Hal and Hank; through spokesman Howard Rubenstein, he declined a request to be interviewed. But like the team that won the World Series last year, the Steinbrenners march on, continuing to lend a hand to their hometown.

The Boss always has had a soft spot for disadvantaged children, athletes and coaches, members of the armed forces, law enforcement and firefighters, and he has offered his charity and influence. The Tampa area is dotted with thank you signs to Steinbrenner. Besides the high school, Legends Field was renamed Steinbrenner Field in 2008 by the city of Tampa, and the Boys and Girls Club of Tampa and a pediatric emergency and trauma center at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital carry his name.

"He would have been less excited about it 20 years ago when he wouldn't have wanted the recognition," Hal Steinbrenner says. "But he's excited, and it is rewarding to him to be recognized. He's emotional and appreciative."

Steinbrenner has paid hospital bills for kids with cancer. From 1994 to 1996, he paid for high school and youth football teams to play at Tampa Stadium, the former home of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In 1981, he started the Gold Shield Foundation to offer financial assistance for college to the children of police officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty. Each year, he pays for the Florida Orchestra to perform a Christmas concert for 2,000 kids as well as a "Coaches' Prom," an annual bash for coaches and their spouses that offers lucrative prizes.

"He always told us that America is supposed to be the land of milk and honey, and there are too many people left behind," Hal Steinbrenner says. "And he taught us if two or more people know you are doing it, you're doing it for the wrong reasons."

He spends most of his time at his mansion in south Tampa, but he's at the Yankees offices once or twice a week. He attended the first two games of the World Series last year at Yankee Stadium and watched the rest on TV.

But make no mistake, Tampa has become in essence the sixth borough of New York. When the Yankees aren't holding spring training there, the Tampa Yankees compete in the Class A Florida State League. Players use the facilities to rehabilitate from injuries and work out. In addition, many members of the team's front office, including the player development department, are based out of the Yankee Complex on North Himes Avenue.

The Yankees' vibe extends deep into the community, too. Police officers have team logos in their squad cars. Steinbrenner and his front office staff have engineered trades and signings at several area restaurants.

The Steinbrenner/Piniella Room, named after The Boss and former Yankees outfielder and manager Lou Piniella, is a private dining room at Malio's Steak House, where Steinbrenner has been known to meet with the team's brass.

And not far from Steinbrenner Field is Pete And Shorty's, a tavern in Clearwater, Fla., where, on Christmas Eve 2001, Steinbrenner met with free agent pitcher David Wells for mini-burgers at lunch and signed him to a two-year, $6.5 million deal even though Wells had verbally agreed to play for the San Diego Padres.

The Yankees' reach has extended this season to the radio waves, where ESPN 1040 is carrying the team's games live and advertises the Yankees as "our team."

Of course, the Tampa-St. Petersburg area has a team. The Rays played the role of little brother to the Yankees from their inception in 1998 until 2008, when they finished ahead of New York for the first time and reached the World Series.

But the region maintains a passionate Yankees following, as seen when New York plays at Tropicana Field, where average attendance has been 26,535 in games against the Bronx Bombers since 2008 as opposed to 22,222 in other games.

"The Yankees are big here," says Dave Manning, vice president of Genesis Communications, which owns the radio station. "It's because of their history, and this is George Steinbrenner's hometown. We love the Rays and we want them to do well, but the Yankees have a following."

Unseen side of personality

Steinbrenner, born on Independence Day in 1930, grew up in Bay Village, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. His dad, Henry, was a disciplinarian, and according to the book, released this month, Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball, written by Bill Madden, George was "scarred by his father's rigidity and lack of affection."

Steinbrenner's bombastic public persona grew almost into a caricature, featured in TV comedies such as Seinfeld and The Simpsons, and he was banned from baseball from 1990 to 1993 after a dispute with outfielder Dave Winfield in which Steinbrenner paid small-time gambler Howard Spira to dig up "dirt" on Winfield.

But his Ohio upbringing also created a different dimension of The Boss. In the book, Steinbrenner said his mom, Rita, taught him sympathy and understanding. "It was my mom who gave me compassion for the underdog and for the people in need," Steinbrenner said.

Steinbrenner started the Gold Shield Foundation in 1981 after reading that two firefighters and a police officer had been killed in the line of duty. To help their kids pay for college, he kicked in the first $125,000. A spring training game between the Yankees and the University of South Florida, which featured appearances by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, netted another $75,000.

The foundation has helped two widows and 14 children get college degrees, with another two widows and four children in school.

"Any sworn officer is eligible if they pay the ultimate sacrifice," says Joe Voskerichian, the foundation's executive director. "It pays $18,000 a year, the current price for a year at the state of Florida rate."

The foundation helped pay for four years at the University of Missouri for Alejandro Soto, who is scheduled to graduate in December with a theater degree. Alejandro was 9 months old when his father, Porfirio, a police officer, was killed.

The foundation paid to have seven members of the officer's family flown from Puerto Rico to Tampa for the funeral, and it paid to have the body buried in Puerto Rico. Alejandro received a $100 savings bond each year until he was 21.

"Out of something bad comes something good," says Carmen Soto, Alejandro's widow. "I wrote Mr. Steinbrenner a letter to say thank you, but those words don't mean everything that you feel. I don't know that there are words to describe what it did for me."

Ubiquitous owner

In Lutz, Steinbrenner High is near a middle school and a grade school and next to a highway. George M. Steinbrenner High School appears in silver letters on the front of the school. The school, which welcomes its first senior class in the fall, has two cases in tribute to Steinbrenner.

One, in the administration building, has an autographed baseball and bat from Steinbrenner and a plaque declaring him an honorary state trooper. There's also a picture of Steinbrenner when he was an assistant football coach at Northwestern and another of him standing next to Babe Ruth's monument at the old Yankee Stadium.

Outside the gym, there's a plaque honoring him in the Tampa Sports Hall of Fame as well as grainy black-and-white photos of Steinbrenner as a hurdler at Williams College and another of him catching a football pass.

"With all that he's done for the area, if you're going to name a school after anybody in Tampa, it should be him," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter says.

The BOSS program has drawn interest from about 70 students, about three times more than the school expected, Principal Brenda Grasso says. "We want the kids to understand that they might not have skill to be an athlete, but there are skills that they can use in baseball and sports. Mr. Steinbrenner is so much more than the owner of the Yankees. He knows what it means to be part of a community."

Mel Antonen, USA TODAY

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