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The Hottest Seat in Sports
Franz Lidz
May 03, 1999
No one says it's easy being George Steinbrenner's public relations man
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May 03, 1999

The Hottest Seat In Sports

No one says it's easy being George Steinbrenner's public relations man

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YANKS MANAGER TORRE HAS CANCER—March 10
STEINBRENNER CALLS IRABU A FAT TOAD—April 1
STRAWBERRY BUSTED ON DRUGS, SEX CHARGES—April 14

Serving as public relations director in the supermarket tabloid world of the New York Yankees is roughly like being under house arrest in a benign dictatorship: Though unshackled, you're never really free, even in the shower.

Jeff Idelson was well soaped when he picked up the bathroom phone in his Minneapolis hotel room in 1990. George Steinbrenner was on the horn, and he was dictating. Idelson hardly had time to grab a towel. When Steinbrenner dictates, you can't say, "Wait a second, George, I have to find some paper and a pencil."

"You can't bother Mr. Steinbrenner with such details," says Idelson, the Boss's p.r. director from 1989 to '93. "He's a perfectionist who wants things done once and done correctly." So Idelson took dictation on the foggy bathroom mirror. "I had to crank up the hot water to make sure the press release didn't disappear as I wrote it," he recalls. "I kept going back to the beginning and retracing the R's and the S's." Luckily for Idelson the call hadn't come while he was out in the snow.

Promoting bearbaiting at a Sierra Club convention might be the only tougher assignment in p.r. But not much tougher. The mercurial Steinbrenner runs the Yankees the way Gen. Douglas MacArthur ran Japan: somewhat more imperiously than the emperor. In 26 years the Boss has gone through 13 publicity directors, just one fewer than the number of managers. None has made it through four seasons. Rick Cerrone, who currently holds the job, is entering his fourth year. He's careful to point out that he gets along well with the Boss, but he says, "The phone never stops ringing. There's no time for lunch or even to finish a cigar. I'm not complaining. That's the job." In early April when Steinbrenner called Pitcher Hideki Irabu a "fat toad" interim manager Don (the Gerbil) Zimmer took offense and complained about Steinbrenner's "ranting and raving." Does Cerrone want to weigh in? Fat chance. A more delicate situation involves Yankee outfielder Darryl Strawberry, arrested in Tampa for soliciting a policewoman and possession of cocaine. Neither Cerrone or Steinbrenner has yet to issue a Strawberry statement.

Steinbrenner's first p.r. ringmaster, in 1973, was Bob Fishel, the onetime St. Louis Browns flack credited with digging up Eddie Gaedel. In 1951 gimmick-mad Browns owner Bill Veeck told Fishel, "Find me a midget." And Fishel did. After walking on four pitches in his first at bat, the 3'7" Gaedel was lifted for a pinch runner and left baseball forever. Fishel left the Bronx forever after Steinbrenner's first year.

He was replaced by Marty Appel, whose chores, in the era before cable and satellite dishes, included doing play-byplay of entire games for Steinbrenner over the phone. ("George would demand to know why his reliever had thrown a curve with an 0-2 count," Appel recalls. "I'd say, 'George, I have no idea.' ") Appel was replaced by Mickey Morabito, who spent much of his three years in Steinbrenner's employ pleading with sports-writers not to print anything Yankees manager Billy Martin said while drunk. Morabito was replaced by Larry Wahl, who had to recall 12,000 copies of the '80 team yearbook because the lips on the full-color photo of Steinbrenner were "too red," as Wahl was told by another Steinbrenner underling. Wahl was replaced by Dave Szen, the oft-used interim who is to the club's p.r. office what Bob Lemon used to be to the dugout. Szen was replaced by Irv Kaze, who issued an apology to the city of New York on behalf of Steinbrenner after the Yanks lost the '81 World Series. Kaze was replaced by Ken Nigro, who incurred George's wrath for handing out I SURVIVED THE PINE TAR GAME T-shirts in the press box. Nigro was replaced by Joe Safety, who kept the Great Yankee Pee-Pee Scandal out of the papers for three days. On two nights in the same week, Kansas City police had charged two Yankees—Don Mattingly and Dale Berra—with public urination. "Same time, same security guard, same dumpster," says Safety. When the story inevitably broke, the headline in a New York tabloid read, WHIZ KIDS.

Steinbrenner's flakiest flack was undoubtedly another George: Costanza. In the fictional post of "assistant traveling secretary," Seinfeld's resident schlemiel spent two TV seasons nodding nonplussed at Steinbabble. Costanza was fired after destroying the team's 1996 World Series trophy by tying it to the bumper of his car.

Typically, baseball publicists serve as spokesmen, write game notes, press releases and act as liaison between the team and the media. "On most teams the job is crazy; on the Yankees it's deranged," says Harvey Greene, whose stint from 1986 to '89 makes him the Lou Gehrig of Yankee publicists. "I worked from 8:30 a.m. to midnight every day, home or away. My yearly goal was to see my house once during daylight hours. I realized if I stayed with the Yankees, I'd be single the rest of my life."

Despite Steinbrenner's excesses, most former flacks remember him fondly. The Boss can be impulsively generous to some employees. For four years he has helped resurrect Strawberry's career and has seen the outfielder through health and financial crises. "As awful as he can be to work for," Greene says, "if you've been loyal to him, he's the best friend you could ever have."

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