He often eats alone. Before the sixth and final game of the World Series last year he ate chocolate ice cream by himself in the restaurant of the Regency Hotel. The staff at Malio's knows when to leave him alone and when he wants conversation. His table is always reserved. "I could be packed and people will say, 'There's a table,' " Iavarone says. "And I'll say, 'That's Mr. Steinbrenner's table.' They'll say, 'I don't see him.' And I'll say, 'Well, I do.'
"George may order coconut ice cream. Well, we don't have coconut ice cream. But we'll go get it. He'll say, 'Let me have some of that Arizona raspberry iced tea you have.' We don't have it. I'll jump in the car and run to 7-Eleven to get it. He'll order some kind of salad we don't have. Maybe he had it somewhere else. We'll ask him, 'Now, how did you like that again? What was in it?' We'll go back and make it for him. He'll say, I told you you had it.' "
He is, after all, 73. He turns 74 on the Fourth of July. According to Steinbrenner his father succumbed to prostate cancer when he was 79. His mother died at 90 of natural causes.
Says Tom McEwen, a close friend in Tampa, "George is getting older. He's getting into that stage where you feel it more. He's very much aware of his age and losing so many of his friends. He's losing people almost daily in Tampa. He'll cry at almost anything."
Steinbrenner cried in front of reporters after the Yankees beat Boston in a regular-season game last July. He never showed in the Yankees' clubhouse to accept the American League championship trophy last October after Aaron Boone hit the series ending home run in the 11th inning. That's because he couldn't stop crying in his office. "I was very emotional," he says. "It made me realize how I felt about my players, my manager and all the fans."
It was 14 years ago, on a July evening at Yankee Stadium, that the few fans who bothered to come out to the ballpark burst into a 90-second standing ovation when it was announced that Steinbrenner had been thrown out of baseball by commissioner Fay Vincent, essentially for paying gambler Howard Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, the Yankees star with whom Steinbrenner was often at odds. The team finished in last place that year, drew two million fans and ranked seventh in payroll.
Today the Yankees are arguably the biggest attraction in sports. They sold nearly three million tickets before a game was played this year and figure to sell more than 3.6 million in all. They have won six of the past eight American League pennants. They start an Ail-Star at every position except second base—and that may yet be rectified. That new labor deal? Not even a nuisance.
"He's gotten to the point," says one Yankees executive, "where he's got the golden goose, and he knows it can't be killed."
Getting Rodriguez in a mid-February trade with the Texas Rangers energized Steinbrenner, especially knowing the Red Sox had blown their chance to do so. Cashman said he waited through "five or six days" of spade work before he told Steinbrenner that Rodriguez was available, and even then he fibbed and said, "It's Mount Everest, it's probably not going to happen, but...."
"I know with George, if he hears about something he likes, it becomes, 'You better get it done,' " Cashman explains.