Yanks old-timers remember The Boss
There were times during Ron Guidry's 14-year Yankees tenure when he wasn't sure who'd be managing the team the next time he came to the ballpark.
"One day you'd leave the park and you'd say good night to your manager and the next day another guy gives you the ball and he says 'I'm the new manager,'" Guidry recalled on Saturday before the Yankees' Old-Timers' Day game at the Stadium. "It happened about 17 times when I was here. So that kind of stuff made [playing for the Yankees] the best soap opera in the country."
You'd never describe George Steinbrenner's 38 seasons as owner of the Yankees as dull. That point was made over and over again on Saturday at Old-Timers' Day as former players shared their memories of the longtime owner, who died early Tuesday morning in Tampa, Fla., after suffering a heart attack. Players also paid tribute to longtime PA announcer Bob Sheppard, who died last Sunday. He was 99.
The former Yankees were quick to offer anecdotes and memories of Steinbrenner and Sheppard, whose deaths earlier this week cast a shadow on what is normally a day for reminiscing about fun times in the Bronx.
"With Bob Sheppard dying and George passing in the same week you just shake your head," former Yankees reliever Rich "Goose" Gossage said. "Two great people, two great New Yorkers are gone in the same week. It's hard to handle."
Amid all the tributes of the past week since the owner's death, Gossage tried to lend some perspective, to contrast the beloved father figure of Steinbrenner's later years with the tempest who shook up New York, baseball and all of sports in his uninhibited younger days.
"The last decade or decade and a half, I just don't think he was as tough as he was when we were there, crazy or whatever you want to call it. He was crazy," Gossage said Saturday. "He was off the charts. The craziest thing about George was the more you won, the crazier he got. Most people are like satisfied, and he got crazier."
Guidry recalled Steinbrenner's passion as well.
"He came in the clubhouse one day," Guidry recalled. "The finger was at me, and 'You're 0-2 in your last two starts.'"
A Cy Young Award winner and two-time World Series champion, Gator was taken aback.
"I'm 0-2. I got a 1 ERA. It's not my fault," he remembered responding. "He would come in there and he would get you. Or he would drop a line in the paper about the way you're pitching. I would read it, or if he said it to me face to face, the worst thing is it would get my dander up, so the next time I went out I had that on my mind."
Unless you were there, you wouldn't understand. That was the era when Gossage labeled "The Boss" "The Fat Man" during a clubhouse rant.
Graig Nettles defined the era when he famously said: "When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a baseball player and join the circus. With the Yankees I have accomplished both."
"It just came to me," Nettles remembered.
Gene (Stick) Michael, a former Yankees executive instrumental in constructing the dynasty in the late 1990s, praised Steinbrenner as an owner who would do whatever was necessary to win -- wallet be damned.
"I think he was one of the best owners ever, because he gave so much back," Michael said. "He spent [his money] all the time, he put it back into the organization."
"I wish I played for him," Whitey Ford quipped.
But it wasn't all about Steinbrenner's money for many of the 48 former players and players' wives on hand Saturday. Many noted Steinbrenner's underappreciated softer side and most were sure to mention his famous bombast and bluster.
Roy White never felt Steinbrenner's ire during his playing days (1965-79), but he experienced the Boss' venom first-hand when he served as an assistant GM to Clyde King in 1985.
"During the games George would come into the box and have some choice comments," White said with a laugh on Saturday.
"George stirred the drink and he stirred it his way," Gossage said. "I think he's the greatest owner the game has ever seen."
Reggie Jackson was shaken when he learned of Steinbrenner's death, too emotional to discuss it at the All-Star Game. He wasn't even sure he wanted to attend Old-Timers' Day.
"I need to be here. I talked to some people that I respect in the leadership of the club. They thought I should be here, and so, I'm here," he said.
Having been the object of Steinbrenner's praise and ridicule, Jackson developed a complicated and perceptive relationship with the man who brought him to New York as a free agent before the 1977 season, then let him go after five years.
"Certainly his drive and his presence and character, personality, has permeated the organization and permeated the city, certainly I think the game of baseball as well," Jackson said.
What once was hurt and anger morphed into warmth and appreciation for a man Jackson admitted "fathered me at times, was a friend at times" and was close to "being an older brother."
"I was disappointed and hurt when I left, and he said several times -- if he said it once, he said it 100 times -- 'The biggest mistake I ever made in baseball was letting Reggie Jackson go.' And so we were never enemies," Jackson said. "If I had any difficult times with him it was because I was in a learning process of understanding life, and so I look at all of the times I had with him as building a stronger relationship. There are players and owners in history that are tied together in the sport, and I'm proud to be tied to him. That will never change."
Many former Yankees also recalled the first time they'd heard their name called by Sheppard, whom Jackson famously called "the Voice of God."
"If you were fortunate enough to be on the field and to start hearing his voice, it was just 'You have arrived,'" said Chris Chambliss, whose AL pennant-clinching homer in Game 5 of the 1976 ALCS remains one of the biggest in team history.
"You can't mention Yankee Stadium in the same breath without mentioning Bob Sheppard. The two were synonymous," Gossage said. "He's going to be missed."
Ian Begley is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.