TAMPA — They sat where their father sat every year: Left side of the stage, row K. The Boss' spot.
The Steinbrenner daughters wore red coats matching their mother, Joan, who sat at the end. At times, Joan Steinbrenner's leg bounced along with Christmas tunes, and at times she used a handkerchief to wipe away sadness. Her wedding ring glistened in the dim light.
Tuesday was the annual Children's Holiday Concert that George Steinbrenner started two decades ago for at-risk children in his hometown of Tampa. Like every year, the Florida Orchestra performed to the fixed grins of 2,500 children, some in Santa caps, who waved along with the conductor and mouthed the carols.
Just as before, a Yankee great – Tampa's own Tino Martinez – told the kids to be "unique" and a "winner" as George wanted. A pro wrestler bellowed through the oft-recited lines, "Twas the Night Before Christmas," while strings hummed What Child Is This?
The event struck notes as familiar as any of the 22 previous years except that, for the first time, the famous Yankees owner wasn't there.
He died July 13, but his presence still filled the room.
He was on Mayor Pam Iorio's mind as she marveled at the thousands of children who got to experience the orchestra thanks to Steinbrenner, perhaps for the first and only time. He was in a video montage, rising to an ovation in a blue blazer, his voice carrying in the giant hall as he recalled the loss of actor Bob Hope. "He was one of a kind, one of a kind ..."
He was in the faded memories of Randy "Macho Man" Savage, who recalled the many times "the Boss" looked the hulking wrestler in the eye, shook his hand and thanked him for taking part.
And Steinbrenner was in the mind of his family, who plan to continue the concerts through their family foundation.
"It was a tough one," Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal said, stifling tears. "It was a hard one for me, because of dad."
George Steinbrenner loved the orchestra. His parents introduced him to classical music at an early age, and he often watched the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall after school. He played drums and football at Culver Military Institute in Indiana, skipping the locker room at halftime to join the marching band.
He went on to invest in six Broadway shows, including the 1970 Tony Award-winning musical Applause and the 1974 Best Musical Tony Award nominee Seesaw.
He likened the orchestra to a baseball team and that's how he told the holiday concert's perennial emcee, WTVT-Ch. 13 anchor John Wilson, to explain it to the kids. A baseball team has catchers, pitchers and outfielders, while the orchestra has ensembles of strings, percussion and brass. The team looks to a manager or coach, while the orchestra takes direction from a conductor.
Throughout the event, Wilson asked each ensemble to perform separately so the children could learn which was which.
"It's excellent to sit here and enjoy all the classical music," said Ava Hall, 10, a Kimbell Elementary School fifth grader. "It's awesome."
She "oohed" as ballet dancers lifted each other into the air during The Nutcracker Suite and many of the girls stared wide-eyed at a ballerina prancing to the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in a pink tutu.
The event closed with everyone singing We Wish You a Merry Christmas, and Swindal hurried her mother out the doors of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
A U-Haul filled with pinstriped knapsacks of Yankees bobbleheads, hats and photographs awaited her to pass out to all the children.
As the kids filed out, Joan Steinbrenner headed a line and handed each a sack, a gentle pat and a holiday wish. It was George Steinbrenner's favorite thing to do, Swindal said, and the family didn't want to miss anyone.