Where did Hank Steinbrenner come from?
That's the question Yankees fans—not to mention Red Sox and Mets fans—have asked all winter. Where had he been, this 50-year-old son of The Boss who seemed to suddenly materialize last fall, stepping in for his ailing father, fronting deals and calling out A-Rod and Joe Torre?
The answer lies beneath the mossy oaks of Ocala, Fla., a dozen winding turns off the freeway that connects Orlando and Gainesville. As a kid, Hank spent summers here at Kinsman Farm, the family's 758-acre horse complex, cleaning stalls and baling hay. As an adult, he returned to run the place, about as far from the Bronx as a man can get.
Some claim George Steinbrenner's eldest child went south in search of a life beyond his father's gravitational pull. Others call it an exile. Whatever the reason, Hank has always felt a kinship with Kinsman. For two decades, he fed his obsession for detail by poring over racing statistics, charting bloodlines and lineage. The endless jigsaw puzzle of searching for the perfect match between stallion and mare taught him the value of patience. Sure, he could have thrown a sack of cash at a can't-miss 3-year-old. But he got more satisfaction out of success with a horse of his own creation, such as Majestic Warrior, one of this year's early Derby favorites and a fourth-generation Kinsman-bred racer. On the farm, Steinbrenner quietly built a thriving Thoroughbred-racing enterprise. And while his father tried to anoint others heir to the Yankees throne, Hank quietly prepared for the moment when—if—he'd get the nod.
"I think my breeding background has absolutely had a bearing on my approach to baseball," Hank says, sitting in his new office overlooking the Yankees' training complex in Tampa. "Building through scouting and the draft, then having the patience to see it through, to see the young talent reach its potential, without panicking. While I was at Kinsman going over all of that data about the horses, I was also getting the scouting reports and minor league stats for the Yankees. Way back in the 1970s, I can remember seeing LaMarr Hoyt's numbers in Double-A and thinking, Wow! Then Dad traded him to the White Sox for a quick fix. He also traded Scott McGregor, José Rijo and Doug Drabek, and he wanted to trade Ron Guidry before they stopped him. We basically provided most of baseball's Cy Young Award winners, and it drove me nuts. I was sitting at the farm thinking, If I ever run the team, I won't be doing things that way."
Now Hank Steinbrenner is running the team, and spotting the new Boss on a shirtsleeve spring day is not difficult. He's the lone guy in a navy sport coat, the one hammering on a stick of gum because he desperately wants to quit smoking. He stands on low-rise bullpen bleachers packed with Yankees coaches and scouts. He loves to mingle among those he calls "the real baseball people," always has. His stint in the front office as an assistant to general managers Woody Woodward and Clyde King, the two seasons before he assumed a full-time role at Kinsman in 1986, provided some of his fondest memories. While his father blustered and chased free agents, young Hank sat and listened to the scouts and coaches, the baseball people. "You can't ever learn enough from the guys who understand the game on such an intricate level," he says.
Out in the bleachers, though, the baseball people still like to put a few feet of distance between themselves and the guy in the navy sport coat. Call it force of habit. A year ago they had no idea they'd be working for this man. Over the past three years, a half-dozen books have been published on the modern Yankees dynasty; Hank Steinbrenner's name isn't mentioned once. But as unfamiliarity erodes, a surprising truth emerges. All those baseball people who feared Hank's dad? Well, they don't want to like Hank, either—except that the more they get to know him, dammit, the more they do.
"A couple of years ago, I ended up on the elevator with Mr. Steinbrenner," says a member of the Tampa grounds crew,referring to George. "I jumped off at the last second before the door closed because we made eye contact and I thought I was going to hyperventilate. Last week, Hank walked into that same elevator and I started to bail again, but he reached out to shake my hand and asked me if we had everything we needed. He probably thinks there's something wrong with me, because I just stood there with my mouth hanging open. But I'm sure he knows that he's
a little intimidating."
Yes, he does. It's the curse and the blessing of a famous surname. Earnhardts are expected to race, Mannings to play quarterback and Steinbrenners to scream at nervous employees—especially here at newly renamed Steinbrenner Field, located at One Steinbrenner Drive. "That's not how it is anymore," Hank says with a disarming smile. "The fear, it's not how I operate. The people here in the front office already know that. The people who know me know that. The Yankee fans have been very good to me so far, but I think it might take some time for people to get used to the fact that I'm not my dad."
Physically, he's not a carbon copy of his father. But the mannerisms are unmistakable, from the way he puts his hands in his pockets to the constant squinting as he listens. At times he even sounds like his father:
Does A-Rod want to go into the Hall of Fame as a Yankee or a Toledo Mud Hen?
Where was Joe Torre's career in '95, when my dad hired him?
Football is tailor-made for performance-enhancing drugs.
And, when asked what will happen if not getting Santana costs the Yanks dearly: Someone will pay.
But although some in the organization flinched at these quotes, others profess agreement. Think about it: A-Rod did decide to return after ill-advisedly opting out of his contract. Hank's observation about Torre? He's got a point. (Look it up.) And pointing a finger at the NFL did briefly turn the talk-radio tide the week a besieged Andy Pettitte returned to camp. As for reminding GM Brian Cashman, who's in the last year of his contract, that refusing to part with prospects for Johan Santana might have been a missed opportunity? Not much room for misinterpretation there. "I do, on occasion, reveal my father's from-the-hip mouth," Hank says. "But unlike Dad, there's a plan. When I said what I did about football, I was simply saying out loud what I know a lot of baseball people believe. I opened the door. Now it's their turn to back me up."
And now, for maybe the first time in his life, Hank knows his dad can't really undermine him. Although the Yankees PR staff no longer makes George available for interviews, insiders say his deterioration is painfully obvious. Hank has participated in shielding his father from scrutiny, but his willingness to critique the old man's management style suggests that he knows there will be no repercussions from down the hall. Not that George has left the building. "Dad is still here," Hank says, nodding in the direction of his father's office. "When Andy Pettitte got to camp and wanted to come up and apologize, he met with all of us. And it was Dad who reassured Andy that he was still part of the family."
Steinbrenner fathers, of course, have put the spurs to their sons for generations, a cycle Hank is determined to break with his own four kids. Henry Steinbrenner, a patriarch of the family shipbuilding business, was ceaseless in his criticism of George, his only son. When George bought the Yankees in 1973, a move perceived by many as an attempt to win the favor of his baseball-loving dad, Henry declared it "the first smart thing he's ever done." When Hank and his 39-year-old brother, Hal, had jobs in the Yankees offices, the frequent humiliation became nearly unbearable. One left baseball to raise horses, the other to run hotels.
In 1990, given a chance to stand in for his father—who'd been suspended for trying to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield—Hank chose to stay with the horses. So instead of grooming his sons, George began preparing his sons-in-law to take over. But in 1998, general partner Joe Molloy was divorced out of the family; nearly a decade later, heir apparent Steve Swindal became an ex-Steinbrenner, his banishment last March coming at the same time that George's health began to seriously falter. (The Boss is now 77.) So again the call went out to the boys (daughters Jennifer and Jessica were never considered by their old-school dad), and this time they were ready. Hank would focus on the game of baseball, Hal on the business of baseball, and one won't make a major decision without consulting the other.
Reaction to Hank's ascension will continue to be painted with different brushes, depending on the artist. Some stand with longtime Hank confidant Reggie Jackson, who says, "It's about time," while others, preferring to remain nameless, worry that Hank is a wild card, full of Georgian bluster, and that it's impossible to predict how he'll react to being battered by the Red Sox—or the media.
Hank points to his priorities: pouring money into scouting and the minor leagues, emphasizing a pitchers-first draft mentality, grabbing free agents only when it makes fiscal sense (although the Yankees did overpay for their own free agents, most notably A-Rod and Jorge Posada, on his watch) and backing disciplinarian Joe Girardi as the anti-Torre. "Anytime there's a change in leadership, people get nervous," says Cubs skipper Lou Piniella, who managed the Yanks during Hank's first front-office experience. "Other teams have known for a long time how to deal with the Yankees because they knew George. Now they don't know what's coming because they don't know a thing about Hank. I'm sure some people inside the organization don't know him either. They will, but for now that has to drive them nuts."
Adds outfielder Johnny Damon: "I think it's exciting. Fans, other teams, everyone's in the process of sizing Hank up. And guess what? He's sizing them up too."
That measurement never ends, especially as Hank Steinbrenner strolls the Tampa backfields with the real baseball people, stopping by the fence to sign autographs. As long as everyone is on board with his plan, the one slow-cooked at Kinsman, he can still be easygoing, approachable Hank. But what's he going to be like if the Yankees (close your eyes and imagine) miss the playoffs for the first time in 15 years? "I am a patient man, but that patience does have its limits," Hank says. "Winning is still the goal. If that doesn't happen, there will have to be accountability."
As he says this, the squint returns. It is not his father's face, or even his father's glare. It is merely a reminder that while Hank Steinbrenner may be his own Boss, his breeding is unmistakable.
You can learn a lot about a man from an index. Hank Steinbrenner may not be mentioned in any recent books, but there are lots of references to his dad in The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, by The Mag's Buster Olney. Such as …
–bullying nature of;
–Brian Cashman's contentious relationship with;
–employees' tense relationships with;
–free agents' wariness of;
–international free agents signed by;
–micromanaging style of;
–players' relationships with;
–Joe Torre and;
–2001 World Series and.