Search

The Hottest Seat In Sports No one says it's easy being George Steinbrenner's public relations man

May 03, 1999
May 03, 1999

Table of Contents
May 3, 1999

Faces In The Crowd
Pro Basketball

The Hottest Seat In Sports No one says it's easy being George Steinbrenner's public relations man

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

This is an article from the May 3, 1999 issue Original Layout

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-by-play 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 sportswriters
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."

Or the worst enemy. In covert smear campaigns against Yankees
players who have disappointed him, Steinbrenner hasn't hesitated
to involve his p.r. directors. During his feud with Dave
Winfield in the '80s, the Boss constantly phoned Greene in the
press box for statistical dish. One call came after Mr. May had
grounded out with runners on. "Harvey!" barked Steinbrenner.
"Get me Winfield's stats with runners in scoring position."
Greene obliged. Next time up Winfield popped out with a man on
third. Green's phone rang again. "Harvey!" Steinbrenner once
more. "Get that stuff to the writers, and don't tell them where
it's from. Just say Winfield isn't living up to the money we're
paying him."

Greene did the dirty deed. A few innings later Winfield doubled
in the game-winning run. Riiiiing! "Harvey, did you give that
information out?"

"Yes, sir. I did exactly what you asked."

"Well, I guess it's too late to take it back."

Greene remembers Steinbrenner fuming about a tabloid scoop on an
impending trade. He ordered Greene to call the writer and ferret
out the mole. "You really ticked off George," Greene told the
writer. "He wants to know where you got the story." The writer
laughed gleefully.

"I'll tell you his name," he said. "George Steinbrenner."

Of the Steinbrenner 13, only Rob Butcher (1994-95) was
"permanently" canned. Butcher had the chutzpah to head home to
Ohio for Christmas on the day David Cone was signed as a free
agent. "George had given me permission to go," says Butcher,
"but he was still upset I wasn't in my office when he called. It
was the most irrationally compulsive act I've ever seen. He
offered me the job back on December 28, and I'll never forget
what he said: 'I think you've learned your lesson.' Though I
loved the job, I couldn't work for him anymore."

Greene thinks Butcher took the firing too personally. "George
axed me four or five times," Greene says. The first time was in
Florida, three weeks into Greene's first spring training.
"Harvey, you can't handle this job," Steinbrenner roared after a
screwup. "Tomorrow morning take the first flight back to New
York."

Greene called Wahl. "Don't worry," said number 4. "Just show up
at work tomorrow, and he'll have forgotten about it."

That can't be right, thought Greene. So he called Morabito.
"Don't worry," said number 3. "He did that to me, too. Come in
tomorrow, and George will be fine."

That can't be right, thought Greene. So he called Appel. "Don't
worry," said number 2. "Tomorrow he won't remember any of this."

That can't be right, thought Greene. So he booked a flight to New
York for 10:30 a.m. The next morning the phone in his hotel room
rang at 8:15. It wasn't a wake-up call. Steinbrenner's secretary
said, "You're supposed to be in at eight. George wants you!"

Greene said, "He fired me yesterday."

"He was just mad. But if you don't get here in 15 minutes, he'll
fire you again."

Greene sighs and says, "The first time George fires you, it's
very traumatic. The three or four times after that, it's like,
Great! I've got the rest of the day off."

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY ISMAEL ROLDAN
"The phone never stops ringing. There's no time for lunch or a
cigar."
"I realized that if I stayed with the Yankees, I'd be single for
the rest of my life."