TAMPA — George Steinbrenner, the famously fiery and bombastic owner of the New York Yankees, has largely retreated from the spotlight at age 77.
But the man they call "the Boss" made a rare public appearance Thursday at Legends Field as his team's spring training complex was renamed for him.
Flanked by his wife and four children, he stood in left field and tugged on a rope to unveil a sign bearing the ballpark's new name, George M. Steinbrenner Field. Then the man who's been described as a tyrant and a bully got a wildly enthusiastic standing ovation from a packed house of appreciative fans.
"This is very special," he said. "It makes me very happy."
When sports stadiums get new names these days, they're usually the brands of big corporations. The naming rights generate another pile of cash for the home team.
But local leaders had urged the Yankees to name the ballpark for the Boss in recognition of his decades-long legacy of philanthropy. Many in his adopted hometown of Tampa have seen Steinbrenner's softer side — the compulsively generous billionaire who has opened up his checkbook again and again for children's charities, student athletics and military groups.
"There are so many things he has done quietly over the years that if you and I were to discuss them all, it would take longer than a day-night double-header," Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda said from the stands along the first base line.
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Legends Field, originally named for the Yankees' collection of legendary players, opened a dozen years ago on N Dale Mabry Highway when the team moved its spring training quarters from Fort Lauderdale to Tampa. It's also home to the minor league Tampa Yankees.
There was a time, years ago, when Steinbrenner, who led a group that acquired the Yankees in 1973, would step outside his luxury box in the later innings of nearly every spring training game to sign autographs for fans who lined up to meet him. Or he'd hold court at Malio's Steakhouse a few miles away.
These days, he typically stays in the owner's box or in his South Tampa mansion, out of the public eye. There are reports that he's in declining health. He's become more reclusive, especially now that he has turned over the operation of the team to his two sons.
But there he was Thursday, sitting in a golf cart on the baseball field beside the Yankees dugout. He chatted briefly with local bigwigs seated in the stands nearby, including Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and retired Catholic Monsignor Laurence Higgins.
He waved at fans attending the Yankees' final home spring training game of the year. They cheered back at him.
They were fans like Ohio natives Carl Steinmetz, 65, and his son Jeff, 40, who uses a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy. They were Reds fans until one day in the 1980s, when Steinbrenner noticed Jeff in his wheelchair and waved them in to watch the Yankees' batting practice. They had their photos taken with Yankee greats Billy Martin and Yogi Berra.
"From that moment on, they just won us over," Carl Steinmetz said.
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Steinbrenner moved his family to Tampa nearly 35 years ago, looking for a spot for his shipbuilding business. He never left.
When the Tampa City Council and Hillsborough County Commission called for Legends Field to be renamed, and when the Hillsborough School Board recently named a new high school after Steinbrenner, they praised him for:
• Donating more than $1-million to St. Joseph's Children's Hospital, where a pediatric emergency center bears his name.
• Paying for Hillsborough middle school sports when they were threatened by budget cuts in the late 1990s.
• Underwriting Christmas concerts by the Florida Orchestra for children in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
• Buying lights for area Little League fields.
• Starting the Gold Shield Foundation, which pays college tuition for children of area police officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty.
After Thursday's ceremony, his son Hank Steinbrenner talked of his father's legacy in Tampa.
"The most important thing is the children's charities, no question," he said. "He always told us that America is supposed to be the land of milk and honey, and there's too many people that get left behind."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3435.