Hal Steinbrenner: I don't deserve to be owner of the Yankees

Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner, the heir to his larger-than-life father, has long been an enigma to fans. Kathy Willens/AP Photo

TAMPA, Fla. -- I come in search of Hal Steinbrenner.

Physically, the man is not hard to find, just one floor up from the press box of the spring training home of the New York Yankees in a stadium that bears his father's name.

But who exactly is Harold Zieg Steinbrenner, the quiet, reticent son of George M. Steinbrenner, a man everyone thought they knew even if they had never met him?

He is the man who for nearly the past decade has held the destiny of the Yankees in his hands and in his family's checkbook.

But to Yankees fans, he has remained a cipher, largely out of the public eye except, most dismayingly, when issuing what has seemingly turned into an annual ritual, the October apology for another season ended too soon. I have covered his team for seven years and never had more than a passing conversation with him.

I find Hal Steinbrenner at his desk in a spacious office overlooking left field at the ballpark colloquially known as The Boss in honor of his late father, who died in 2010. In a display case are several of the World Series championship trophies won by the Yankees since George Steinbrenner bought the team in 1973. At the conference table where we will conduct our interview sits the triangular folded American flag, in a wooden display case, that had been draped over his father's coffin.

Hal Steinbrenner is dressed casually in a polo shirt, tan slacks and tan lace-up shoes. He is unshaven, a bit hyperactive, and his voice and clipped cadences instantly recall those of his father. He looks younger than his 47 years.

Over the course of a wide-ranging, hourlong interview, he is alternately very much what I expected and nothing like I thought he would be.

I found him smart, vulnerable, funny, at times profane and always immensely likable. And ultimately, perhaps unknowable.

I tell him that I have come not so much to talk about his team but to learn about him. Who is Hal Steinbrenner?

He is self-deprecating. "You're assuming I even know," he said, with a rueful smile.

He knows, however, who he is not. "I'm not trying to be George," he says. "I never walked into this with the concept of trying to act like George, trying to be everything that George was, 'cause I can't. Nobody can."

We range through a variety of topics, beginning with his relationship with his father, a man he refers to almost always as George.

"It was good, but I wouldn't say very close," he said. "He traveled a lot when I was growing up, and then I went to Culver Military Academy up in Indiana. So I was kind of out of Florida by age 14. We had a good respectful relationship. It was never easy. He was a tough boss as everyone knows. As you can imagine, he was a tough dad."

That toughness left its scars. Hank Steinbrenner, the oldest, was the artistic one -- he plays the piano, guitar and saxophone. He's also the athletic one -- a champion hurdler like his dad and his grandfather, Henry. Hal Steinbrenner was the space and aviation geek, the kid immersed in math and science and psychology.

"I'm completely left side of the brain," he said. "I'm the guy you want flying a plane, but I have no musical ability, no artistic ability. George and Hank got the right and the left side of the brain. I just got the left. I don't know what happened."

What happened was young Hal became more like his mother, Joan. He describes himself as shy, an introvert who seemingly did not have all that much in common with his father, whom he describes as "boisterous."

Asked to describe the happiest memory he could think of with his dad, Hal went all the way back to 1979, to a trip to Cape Canaveral that George had arranged to indulge his 10-year-old son's fascination with aviation and spaceflight.

"It was one of the few things we did together but I'll never forget it," he said. "I still have some photos of it. It was a good day. Even though I was too young to remember any of it, I knew all about Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, I knew all the astronauts, I knew all the history at age 10 or 11. So that was special. Those guys were unbelievable pilots, and so courageous, going up on top of a ballistic missile in a pod the size of this table."

In his excitement to describe the courage of the astronauts, he uses an expletive that surprises me. It goes against the image of the reserved, introverted second son of George Steinbrenner.

He is strident, if not exactly passionate, about his role as managing general partner of the Yankees -- that is the description he uses, never "owner," and certainly never Boss -- but nowhere near as wound up as he gets when he talks about flying his airplanes, a GTO single-engine aircraft and a Cessna high-wing that he says he can land anywhere. It is a hobby he only took up in 2000.

"That's what I do to get away from this," he said, pointing at his iPhone. "Go up to 2,000 feet and practice takeoffs and landings."

His lifelong interest in aviation became an obsession when he lived on Davis Island, literally a minute from Peter O. Knight airport.

"I'm watching these planes take off and land and I finally said to myself, 'I can't avoid this any longer,"' he said. "It scared the hell out of my dad. He was always worried about it. But you know, there's nothing safe about driving on the interstate, either. You minimize the risk, you make sure your plane is in good shape, and you don't make poor choices, and it's a fairly safe thing to do."

The way he talks about flying mirrors the way Hal Steinbrenner runs the Yankees, with caution, careful preparation and strict attention to detail. It is virtually the opposite of the way George Steinbrenner ran the team, mostly by his gut, often by impulse, and nearly always fueled by emotion.

When Hal Steinbrenner says, "You don't want to see the pilot going nuts when the lights start going off in the cockpit," you know he's not just talking about flying an airplane.

"I'm a checklist kind of guy, for better or worse," he said. "I'm always under control. Maybe it's a bad thing in this position, but it's just my personality."

He is never again going to let the fans see him throwing things at his TV, as he said he did during last year's playoff loss to the Houston Astros, and he said he's never going to react to a loss, or a losing season, by firing someone. He understands his natural reserve tends to make fans believe he doesn't really care about the Yankees, at least not as much as his father did.

"Even if I wanted to, I couldn't do that," he said. "I'm not going to try to be something that I'm not. I don't pretend to be as good as him in this role, and I wouldn't even try."

But he does bristle slightly at the perception that Hal's Yankees are cheap (last year's payroll was $240 million) or that he is not nearly as willing to spend for free agents as his father had been. He points out that twice in his tenure, the Yankees have spent upward of $400 million in an offseason for free agents, a sum not even George Steinbrenner ever spent.

"Look, when money comes off the payroll we do everything we can to put those assets back into the club," he said. "It doesn't bother me because I know how special George was to a lot of people, but I also remember the '80s and the first half of the '90s, when not too many people were happy with him. But so many championships in such a short amount of time breeds expectations. I get that. I know it's just the way it is."

He said that when baseball's new collective bargaining agreement comes out, he will try once again to pare the Yankees' payroll below the threshold to avoid paying the luxury tax, as he tried to do in 2013. But he pointed out that even though he had trimmed the payroll to $190 million -- the threshold was $189 million -- he scrapped it all to sign Masahiro Tanaka because, he felt, "we weren't good enough to win."

And while he said that the Yankees will no longer carry such a bloated payroll, he left little doubt that under similar circumstances, he would do the same thing again.

"We have a lot of money coming off the payroll in the next two years, $100 million from four guys," he said, in reference to the expiring contracts of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and CC Sabathia. "And we're going to put a lot of it back in. But that doesn't mean I need a $240 million payroll."

He told a story of how, as a 22-year-old back in 1991, Don Mattingly pleaded with him to tell his dad not to trade away all their young prospects. "George listened," he said, "And look what happened. 1996 happened. And those guys performed."

"George accomplished all this through his hard work. But for me, this is a privilege. It's a privilege in that I don't feel that I deserve to be the managing general partner of the New York Yankees. And if my last name wasn't Steinbrenner, I wouldn't be managing general partner of the New York Yankees."
Hal Steinbrenner

He thinks he might be on the brink of presiding over a similar era, that young kids such as Luis Severino, who is likely to make the starting rotation, and Gary Sanchez, who could win the backup catcher's job, and Aaron Judge, a young giant who hit one over the 40-foot-high scoreboard in distant left-center last week, could form the nucleus of another Core Four.

"We're better than we were last year, I believe," he said.

And if it doesn't happen? Will, in a favored phrase of his fearsome dad, "heads roll"?

"I can't answer that right now," he said. "First of all, it has to happen. Second of all, I have to sit down and analyze why."

George Steinbrenner was never one for analysis, but Hal is not George, nor does he strive to be.

"George accomplished all this through his hard work," Hal Steinbrenner said. "But for me, this is a privilege. It's a privilege in that I don't feel that I deserve to be the managing general partner of the New York Yankees. And if my last name wasn't Steinbrenner, I wouldn't be managing general partner of the New York Yankees."

As I leave, I recall the words of a longtime Yankees employee, who told me, "George's favorite child, by far, was the New York Yankees."

After nearly an hour, I think I'm beginning to know Hal Steinbrenner. And what I know, I can't help but like. And feel for.