TAMPA — When former Rays owner Vince Naimoli thinks of George Steinbrenner, both the public perception of the Yankees owner and the private side known to friends, he thinks of M&Ms.
One summer, Naimoli wanted to get Steinbrenner a birthday present ("What do you send to a guy who has everything?" he asks) and remembered that he had a fondness for M&Ms. So the Rays put together a big basket with the candy, balloons and a card, and he had a staff member take it over to the Yankees complex in Tampa.
Seeing the gift, a receptionist told the staffer just to pop in and give it to Steinbrenner, but he found the Yankees owner shouting on the phone, fist banging his desk. Steinbrenner motioned the staffer in, put the phone down and was all smiles, gracious for the gift. "George asks him, 'Do you have any sons?' And next he opens the closet and gives him a whole bunch of Yankees stuff," Naimoli said.
No sooner had the staff member shut the door in leaving Steinbrenner's office, then "George goes right back to pounding on the table and shouting. He was a fine man."
Steinbrenner died Tuesday at age 80 after suffering a massive heart attack, and the local sports community remembered a generous man, a competitive leader and a good friend to the city of Tampa.
"He was a wonderful man, a friend, actually like a family member," said Tampa's Lou Piniella, who played for two Yankees championships in the late 1970s and got his first managing job from Steinbrenner in 1986. "George was a demanding owner, but very caring, very supportive. He bought a struggling franchise and turned it into a dynasty. He's going to be known as the most influential owner in the history of sports."
You didn't have to go far to find a sports figure affected by Steinbrenner's generosity. Former USF basketball coach Seth Greenberg, who frequently saw Steinbrenner sitting courtside at Bulls games, didn't fully appreciate the depth of his generosity until the campus shootings in 2007 at Virginia Tech, where Greenberg is now coach.
Steinbrenner donated $1 million to the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund and brought the Yankees to Blacksburg for an exhibition baseball game the next spring to raise spirits on campus.
"He just called the next day, like that. Who would do that?" Greenberg said. "You can't find a more generous person."
Steinbrenner's philanthropy can be seen all over the state, but fans can thank him the next time they attend a night college baseball game — he paid for the first lights at USF's baseball field, as well as the University of Tampa, Florida, Florida State and Jacksonville.
Jeff Staples, a former baseball coach at Saint Leo, wrote the St. Petersburg Times to share a story from the late 1990s, when his program had a shrinking budget and its coaches wrote Steinbrenner to see if they could have the old batting practice balls the Yankees had used.
A few days later, they got a call that the balls were waiting for Saint Leo's coaches at the Yankee's minor-league complex. Staples found 70 dozen new major-league baseballs waiting for him.
"I can't even imagine the countless acts of generosity he has done for our community that no one even knows about," Staples wrote.
USF coach Lelo Prado said he loved when Tampa's Legends Field was renamed for Steinbrenner in 2008, because Steinbrenner often insisted that the public not know about his generosity. When Prado won a national championship at the University of Tampa in 1992, the program couldn't afford rings. Steinbrenner found out and paid for them.
"He never wants his name on it. We would have told everybody, but he didn't want that. There's a million stories like that," Prado said. "There aren't too many guys in this whole country that have done what George Steinbrenner has done for people. Forget about baseball, for anyone that needed help."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346.