What was the last true live TV interview granted by George Steinbrenner? Very possibly, it could have been about his racehorses and not his beloved New York Yankees.
Five years ago, Steinbrenner's homebred Bellamy Road was the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Naturally, everyone wanted to interview The Boss. But ESPN requests for print or TV interviews were referred to his Kinsman Farm in Ocala, where his people confirmed Steinbrenner would indeed attend the Derby but would conduct absolutely no interviews of any kind.
Those of us with ESPN still expected to see Steinbrenner interviewed on NBC, which was televising the Derby itself. As usual, we were showing only the undercard races. But as Derby Day approached, we were told that NBC, too, was striking out with the Yankees owner.
Our Saturday began with Kenny Mayne and I parked at a desk on a Churchill Downs balcony overlooking the track and paddock, and adjacent to the director's suite and a dining room. Two years later, we would get an up-close look at Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip as they watched Calvin Borel's Derby win on Street Sense from a vantage point only 20 feet away from us.
But on this day, there was no sign of Steinbrenner - until, midway through the afternoon, a production assistant named Suzanne went into the dining room on an errand and returned with a broad smile. "You'll never guess who I just met!" she exclaimed. "George Steinbrenner! I'm a huge Yankees fan."
Suzanne could probably tell in a glance what we were thinking.
"Do you think you could get him to do an interview?" Kenny asked her. "Tell him we won't ask about the Yankees, just about Bellamy Road and the Derby. Beg and grovel."
"I think he likes me," Suzanne said. "I'll give it a shot."
Suzanne said she went into the restaurant, knelt beside Steinbrenner's chair and politely asked if he might be willing to talk to us. He waved his hand dismissively. "No. I'm not talking to NBC," he said. Suzanne explained that we were actually ESPN, and Steinbrenner's mood changed abruptly. "Oh, I like ESPN," he said. "Let's go."
We had just gone to a commercial break when we saw Suzanne emerge from the glass doors of the restaurant, arm-in-arm with George. To this day, I have no idea what grudge he had against NBC. It undoubtedly involved a perceived baseball slight and not horse racing. But we weren't questioning his reasoning. We had The Boss, and we had an exclusive interview.
I remember being struck at the feebleness of the then-75-year-old Steinbrenner as I helped him step up onto our set and into a chair. He was no longer the fast-talking and bombastic sparkplug of reputation. He was shaky, struggled with some of his answers and seemed to lose focus. It was apparent why his handlers were trying to shield him from interviews. I felt a twinge of guilt. But he was lucid enough to make his points, and exceedingly gracious.
About an hour later, Tom Hammond announced to NBC viewers that Steinbrenner was giving no interviews. Hammond had been on the set rehearsing, with no idea we had orchestrated a coup.
A few years earlier, I had also encountered Steinbrenner at Saratoga, as he stood alone watching his horses one morning outside Bill Mott's spacious barn on the old Greentree grounds. Mott was busy and no one else was seemingly mustering the nerve to talk to one of the best-known figures in sports. After a few minutes I walked over and introduced myself. What's the worst he could do, fire me? We had a half-hour chat that was intriguing and entertaining - at least for me - about baseball, his philosophies of owning and breeding horses, and even George W. Bush, about whom he spoke with approval.
He told me flat-out he would rather win another World Series than a Kentucky Derby, because the Yankees were business and racing was a hobby, but he'd prefer to get both. He didn't get that Derby trophy, but last fall Yankees GM Brian Cashman spoke emotionally about Steinbrenner's failing health and what winning another Series ring for him meant to the family and the team. I've never necessarily been a Yankees fan, but realizing the days of The Boss were numbered, that's one favorite I was rooting home.