There will be countless rememberances about the late George Steinbrenner and, although I can't come close to offering the perspective and depth of someone who covered him on a regular basis, I did have one memorable (for me) phone interview with The Boss.
The subject: Football -- specifically, John Elway.
The inteview occurred in January, 1998, about 10 days before Elway's Denver Broncos were to face Brett Favre's Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego. Working for the New York Daily News at the time, I wrote a story about Elway's summer fling with the Yankees.
It was the summer of '82, when Elway, a senior-to-be at Stanford, played right field for the Oneonta Yankees of the Class-A New York-Penn League. The Yankees, who chose Elway with their first pick in the June 1981 amateur draft, were determined to convince him to pick baseball over football. Elway, in turn, used his flirtation with baseball as leverage in forcing the Baltimore Colts to trade his rights to the Broncos after the 1983 NFL draft.
Reporting the story, I submitted an interview request for Steinbrenner and, sure enough, he called back. The conversation lasted maybe 10 minutes, and he couldn't have been nicer. Here is an excerpt from the story:
George Steinbrenner envisioned an outfield with Dave Winfield in left and Elway in right. The Yankee owner, titillated by Elway's all-American image and potential box-office appeal, flew Elway and his parents to New York, wining and dining them at Yankee Stadium. Eventually, Elway signed for $ 140,000 to play for Oneonta. Not bad for a six-week gig in the minors. He used the money to buy a Datsun 280-Z.
"He was the all-America kid with a big smile, like a modern-day Frank Merriwell or Jack Armstrong, one of the old sports heroes," Steinbrenner said the other day. "That appealed to me. He would've been a hero in New York."
(A side note: Steinbrenner used the same quote in a newspaper story that ran in 1982, complete with the Merriwell and Armstrong references. Made me wonder if he had a file of stock quotes for certain players.)
Most observers, even people within the Yankees organization, felt the club had no shot of convincing Elway to become a full-time baseball player. But Steinbrenner, not one to give up easily, kept pushing.
Steinbrenner remembered the first time he saw Elway in a Yankees uniform, the spring of '82 at Boggs Field in Hollywood, Fla. Elway stepped into the batting cage and was asked to lay down a bunt toward third base.
Perfect bunt. Now hit to the opposite field.
Again, perfect. Hit behind the runner. Perfect.
Then, as a joke, he was asked to hit a home run. Sure enough, that's what he did, a 370-foot shot over the right-field wall.
"Right then," Steinbrenner said, "I knew."
Elway got off to a slow start at Oneonta, a 1-for-22 slump prompted the local paper to run a story with the headline, "Where's Our Golden Boy?"
He hadn't played baseball since his sophomore year, so he was understandably rusty. Once he found his swing, Elway displayed his many skills, finishing with a .318 average, four homers and 13 stolen bases in 42 games.
And, of course, he had that arm. It was a treat to watch fielding practice, seeing him make the throw from right to third. Once, goofing around on the mound in college, Elway was clocked at 93 mph.
Steinbrenner never saw Elway play at Oneonta, but he predicted greatness, saying at the time, "He will be a great outfielder for me, one in the great Yankee tradition of Mantle, Maris, DiMaggio and all the others . . . including Reggie."
Fifteen years later, Steinbrenner still speaks fondly of Elway, although his baseball evaluation is less glowing.
"I don't know if he would've been great with the Yankees, but he would've been a damn good outfielder," he said. "It's fun to think what might have been."