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The Boss and the boy with the braces

Around here we like our stories about George Steinbrenner. Oh, sure, he owned the New York Yankees and all that, but in this town we claim him as one of our own, this man who could seem equal parts mouth and heart.

And so here is a story for the passing of an icon, about a boy and his braces:

Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda was working at the wonderfully old-fashioned horse racing track called Tampa Bay Downs about 20 years ago. Miranda was a steward, someone who enforces the rules and judges the races, a job he still holds part-time.

And Steinbrenner?

He liked the ponies, owned a few himself, and would show up once or twice a week to eyeball a horse being walked or to catch a race.

"A regular guy," Miranda called him, one who hung out at a regular table or walked the crowd.

"He liked horse racing — he had some very good horses that won some big races," Miranda said. "He talked to everybody. He wasn't shy." This is probably not a surprise, given the legend that is Steinbrenner.

One day, Miranda was headed past the grandstand when Steinbrenner came up and pointed to a kid who was walking along.

"Find out who that is," Steinbrenner said.

The boy, as it turned out, was related to a jockey named Jose Rivera II. He was skinny, maybe 12, with brown hair and, as Miranda recalled it, some exceptionally prominent teeth.

It was the kind of smile fellow adolescents generally do not let slide without comment.

"Like a bunny," his ex-wife later told me of the childhood pictures she witnessed.

"Stuck straight out," Miranda said.

"Nobody should have to go through life like that," Steinbrenner told Miranda that day.

So they tracked down the kid, whose name turned out to be Omar Erazo, and his mother. Soon the boy was walking around with a mouthful of expensive orthodontia the family could not have afforded.

"I saw the before and after," Miranda said. And after, "He looked fantastic."

The boy grew into a man of 32 who drives a town car for a living. He was away visiting family in Puerto Rico this week, but his ex-wife, Missy Mercado, told me she teased him about those childhood pictures. "I said, 'If I met you like that, I probably wouldn't talk to you,' " she said.

They have two young daughters and have remained friends, she said.

"His teeth are perfect," she said. "He's got a beautiful smile."

You heard these things about Steinbrenner over the years, stories different than the philanthropic largesse that was part of The Legend of The Boss. They were quieter stories, rumors that he paid for surgery on an employee's child, that kind of thing. Reporters generally could not get him to talk about it.

He was the blustering caricature on Seinfeld, after all, the legend, the icon, the Boss.

And the kid with the braces?

"That was one of the things nobody knows about," Miranda said on the day of Steinbrenner's passing. "Just a spur of the moment thing when somebody needed help."

"He was a really a gentle guy," Miranda said, as good an ending you could ask for to a story like his.

The Boss and the boy with the braces 07/13/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 14, 2010 9:23am]
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