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Jill Lieber
July 30, 1990
Leaked testimony limned a dubious picture of Yankee boss George Steinbrenner
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July 30, 1990

A Man On The Spot

Leaked testimony limned a dubious picture of Yankee boss George Steinbrenner

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The Helmeted figure on the video screen stood posed in full World War II regalia, a pistol on each hip, medals covering his chest, behind him a gigantic American flag. Guests at the gala birthday party in Ocala, Fla., on the weekend before July 4 thought that they were being shown the opening scene of Patton. But this was a homemade birthday video, and when the camera zoomed in on the soldier, he turned out not to be George S. Patton or even George C. Scott, who played Patton in the movie, but rather the 60-year-old birthday boy, George M. Steinbrenner, looking every bit as tough and imperious as Old Blood and Guts himself. The guests loved it. The two orchestras played on.

There is more than a little of Patton in Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees, and last week he was struggling mightily to maintain a strong, Pattonesque front—and to protect his rear flank. As he holed up in a Manhattan hotel, calling in select groups of reporters for interviews and periodically getting reports on his wife, Joan, who was said to be recovering from major surgery in a Tampa hospital, Steinbrenner knew that his future in baseball was in question. Commissioner Fay Vincent was at his vacation home on Cape Cod with a mountain of transcripts and documents, trying to decide whether Steinbrenner, in paying $40,000 to self-described former gambler Howard Spira in January and in trying to discredit former Yankee outfielder Dave Winfield by various means over the last decade (Scorecard, July 23), had acted "not in the best interests" of baseball and thereby had violated Major League Rule 21(f). If Vincent decides that Steinbrenner did act against the best interests of the game, he can fine and/or suspend Steinbrenner or even force him to sell his majority ownership of the Yankees.

By week's end Steinbrenner was grasping for any signs of hope he could find. He pointed out that several of the players on his team had offered words of support for him in the New York newspapers. "Unsolicited," he marveled. And on Friday he boasted that "nine owners called today to say they were behind me."

But the outlook for Steinbrenner remains murky. Baseball launched its investigation of him in March after he admitted having paid Spira the $40,000. Spira claims to have worked in the early 1980s for the David M. Winfield Foundation, a charitable organization that funds educational and antidrug campaigns. Winfield says Spira was a mere "gofer." Spira has said he received the money for providing Steinbrenner with information damaging to Winfield, who has long feuded with Steinbrenner. Steinbrenner denies engaging in any such quid pro quo but has different explanations for the payment. Initially, he said he paid Spira merely to help him out; later he said he gave Spira the money to prevent his going public with embarrassing information about former Yankee employees. In June, after looking into these and other questions, baseball's chief investigator, John Dowd, reported his findings to Vincent. On July 5 and 6, Vincent held a closed hearing in New York City, at which Steinbrenner and his five lawyers spent 11 hours addressing allegations involving Steinbrenner.

The National, a sports newspaper, obtained the 372-page transcript of Steinbrenner's hearing and published excerpts last week. The transcript, which Vincent's office subsequently released, showed Steinbrenner squirming and wriggling under the bright, sometimes harsh, light of Vincent's questioning. Steinbrenner was evasive, defensive and inconsistent in his answers. In some instances Vincent seemed astonished that Steinbrenner could have been so naive and inattentive to his team's affairs. Vincent also strove to understand why Steinbrenner did not turn to the commissioner's office for advice before paying Spira.

"I think you know how I feel about you and maybe I should have. Come to you as a friend," said Steinbrenner.

"Not as a friend. As commissioner," replied Vincent.

At the hearing Steinbrenner addressed 12 principal "issues" that had been spelled out by Vincent. They included whether Steinbrenner paid Spira for information damaging to Winfield; associated or did business with Spira, knowing that he was a gambler; privately investigated allegations of impropriety involving Winfield and his foundation without telling the commissioner or Winfield; publicly aired allegations about Winfield that Steinbrenner knew to be false; and failed to tell the commissioner before going to the Manhattan district attorney in 1987 with information about alleged improprieties involving the Winfield Foundation.

Briefly put, Steinbrenner's stance was that he had probably used poor judgment but had never knowingly done anything contrary to the best interests of baseball. He denied having spread false allegations about Winfield, whom he traded to the California Angels in May, or having tried to discredit him. Steinbrenner also claimed that because he was contractually obliged to make contributions to the Winfield Foundation, he had every right to investigate it. All in all, Steinbrenner's testimony raised as many questions as it answered. Consider, for example, the four reasons Steinbrenner cited—two of them not mentioned by him previously—for having paid Spira:

1) Threats of physical harm. "I wanted to get him the hell out of my life and my family's life," Steinbrenner told Vincent. "You don't know what it's like when you've got a guy out there calling and threatening to kill people in your family." Steinbrenner said that because of Spira's threats he hired two armed bodyguards.

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