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"Kind of young to be doing this, aren't ya'?"
Those were the first words Mr. Steinbrenner said to me, when I met him in 1989, in the lobby of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. As Resident Conductor of The Florida Orchestra, it was my job to conduct all youth, park and community concerts. That December, The Boss wanted to produce a concert for the disadvantaged and indigent kids of the Tampa Bay area, and it fell on me to conduct the concert.
Of course, Mr. Steinbrenner was known to be a man in control, and even with a holiday concert for kids, he didn't want to leave anything to chance. He probably wanted Skitch Henderson - the orchestra's Pops Music Director - to do it, because he knew Skitch and the two of them got on quite well. But Skitch was a busy man, so why not have the new kid do it?
"A conductor's got to start somewhere."
"Hrrumph. . .. I guess you're right."
. . .and he took one last look at me, sizing me up, and walked away.
To this day, this brief encounter still stands as the shortest meeting I have ever had with anyone.
It was your typical Christmas concert, but with a few Steinbrennerian twists. Randy "Macho Man" Savage was brought in to speak the kids. In his distinctively brusque voice, Savage was great at making the audience feel special, that "any one of you can do anything in this world, if you put your mind to it."
And at the end of the concert, when it was time for the sing-along, Santa (yup, Steinbrenner himself) came onstage to sing in front of the orchestra. I don't remember momentarily giving up conducting duties at this point, but there it was on the front page of the Tampa Tribune sports section the next day: a big cover photo of me, Steve Sax, Macho Man and Santa Steinbrenner, all with our mouths wide open, singing in full voice to 2,400 kids. Each kid left the hall beaming, proud owner of a new Yankee duffle bag filled with baseballs, a mitt and other paraphenalia. It had been nearly fifteen years since the Yankees had won a world championship, but not one of these kids cared. They were on cloud nine.
Oh. . . I almost forgot. Mr. Steinbrenner even roped Billy Martin into the act! The challenge left to me then, was. . . what will Billy do? After some hand wringing, it was decided that Mr. Martin would narrate 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.'
He arrived an hour before the concert. (Big time baseball managers don't have time for dress rehearsals.) With the help of a rehearsal pianist, we took a few minutes to determine how I would coordinate the end of his narration with the end of the orchestra's music. (Steinbrenner was hovering, but thankfully, once he figured I knew what I was doing, he stayed out of the way.)
Given his mercurial reputation, I was surprised to find Billy Martin so meek and mild. I mean, here was this baseball legend, just past sixty years of age, with a beautiful young blonde on his arm, and I was understandably nervous. As it turned out, he was far more nervous than I, clearly out of his element, having been pigeon-holed (yet again) by The Boss. But he did well in the concert.
Less than a week later, Martin was dead, having gone off the side of a road in his pick-up truck.
More holiday concerts would follow, and since Steinbrenner was also a supporter of the University of South Florida (where I taught), we became a little more than just acquaintances, if not friends. Someone had told me that Skitch once let Steinbrenner conduct his New York Pops, which gave me an idea: why not ask George to conduct my school orchestra for the annual school Arts gala? I knew he was going to be there to receive some honor; why not have him strike up the band, for good measure? He readily agreed . . . but then came his conditions and requirements! He would conduct the "George M. Cohan Salute." This was a favorite of his, and I think he might have done it before, so I agreed to his terms. (Like I had a choice.)
I am now recalling what the great conductor, Georg Solti, said when asked what he first looks for in a conductor, more than anything else: "Not a good ear, not even good musicianship, or good hands. No -- the most important skill for a conductor, is that he must be able to lead."
Of course, this skill was quite evident in the way Mr. Steinbrenner led my college charges. I had prepared them a few weeks before, but Mr. S. came in and did everything his way. By the end of the rehearsal, everyone knew exactly what he wanted. The performance came off beautifully, without so much as a hitch.
Georg Solti would have been impressed.