How Steinbrenner invested in the youth market

George Steinbrenner, best known as the fire-and-brimstone owner of the New York Yankees, dedicated himself to helping Tampa Bay's youth athletes live out their dreams. When Steinbrenner found out about a cause, he always opened his pockets — whether it was Little Leaguers who needed a new concession stand or high schoolers playing in a state title game. He even held an annual banquet for high school coaches that featured eye-popping prizes. Here's a look at some of Steinbrenner's most notable efforts.

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From 1997 to 2004, George Steinbrenner opened his team's spring training palace to high school baseball, with Legends (now Steinbrenner) Field hosting the Florida High School Athletic Association state championships over that span. But Steinbrenner, who died Tuesday at age 80, did more.

Former Hillsborough County athletic director Vernon Korhn said Steinbrenner would donate money to help with travel expenses to every participating team, whether they were from Jesuit a block away, or as far as Pensacola or Key West.

As players and coaches arrived at the stadium, team personnel gave them backpacks with Yankees T-shirts and polos.

Current Jesuit baseball coach Richie Warren was a player on the Tigers' Class 4A state championship team in 2000 that played at Legends and was a coach on teams that went to the state tournament in 2002 (Gainesville P.K. Yonge) and '03 (Santa Fe).

"They treated the players and coaches like they were his players," Warren said. "It all came out of his own pocket. It goes to show you how much he cared about youth athletics.

"You appreciated it as a player, and then you get to see it as a coach and appreciate it in a whole other way."

According to a 1997 St. Petersburg Times story, the Steinbrenner family and the New York Yankees donated $54,000 — the entire net receipts from the first year of Legends hosting the state tournament — to the athletic departments of Hillsborough County's public and private schools. Each school received $2,000.

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Unlike the Major League Baseball landscape he forcefully roamed, Steinbrenner's utopian vision of prep athletics wasn't segregated into haves and have-nots.

Steinbrenner, himself a former coach, delighted in giving all kids the opportunity to perform on the grandest stages. Case in point: the fall football jamboree he financed five years (1994-98) at Tampa (later renamed Houlihan's) Stadium.

Each year, eight to 10 Hillsborough County teams would converge at the stadium on a rotating basis, so every school would get a chance to play on NFL turf and suit up in an NFL locker room.

"We were about to go on the field, and he's sitting on a metal folding chair," recalled Robinson coach Mike DePue, then a Knights assistant. "I went over and thanked him and he said, 'This is what I do.' He was just a generous man."

One year before the event ended, in August 1997, first-year programs Sickles and Wharton had the distinction of playing their first organized contests — against each other — at Houlihan's Stadium. Before a throng of more than 9,000, Sickles prevailed 6-3 in a turnover-marred half.

"It was great," said former Gryphons coach Pat O'Brien, then a Sickles assistant. "You hear the stories back and forth, how he was as a businessman and owner. But he loved coaches and kids and loved to help out."

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The act of arson that destroyed the two-story Palma Ceia Little League clubhouse 11 summers ago left that organization partially paralyzed.

The concession stand was lost. Lights and sprinklers were rendered inoperable. Trophies and banners were consumed.

"We lost everything," said Greg Sinadinos, then a member of the league board who went on to serve eight years as president. "The entire league history was stored in the offices in that facility. It was a devastating loss."

Ashes were still flitting in the South Tampa air when Steinbrenner stepped up to assist. His $30,000 contribution to the league, whose building was uninsured, covered nearly 10 percent of the cost for a new two-story, tin-roofed clubhouse. As an architectural tribute, its arches mimic those at Steinbrenner Field.

"Actually, I kind of go back to that quote where he says he's 95 percent Mr. Rogers and 5 percent Oscar the Grouch," said Sinadinos, now administrator for District 6, which comprises 10 Tampa-based Little League programs. "Our statement is he's 100 percent heart and 100 percent dedicated to the children in the community."

Fact is, it's difficult to hit any area Little League ballpark without encountering a bit of the Boss' benevolence. Through the years, Steinbrenner doled out money to help renovate the facilities at Belmont Heights and replace stolen equipment at Interbay.

According to Sinadinos, the Steinbrenner Family Foundation is in the second year of a five-year, $50,000 commitment "to children in Little League softball and baseball in our community."

In observation of Steinbrenner's passing, flags flew at half-staff at Palma Ceia on Wednesday night.

"Him and the family," Sinadinos said, "have been the single largest supporters and contributors to Little League baseball here in Tampa in the last 10 years."

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For the past 21 years, Steinbrenner hosted a coaches banquet for Hillsborough County public and private school coaches.

For many, the event — affectionately known as the "coaches prom" — was the highlight of the year. About 25 prizes were given at each banquet, including trips to New York and Hawaii and a car.

The event now draws about 1,200 annually.

"It just unbelievable that he was willing to do that year after year and provide that opportunity to our coaches," said county athletic director Lanness Robinson, who has attended the banquet the past 15 years. "There are costs that are associated that we have no idea how that came about. We just helped facilitate it. That's just spectacular that he wanted to do that."

Robinson, a former football coach at Plant City, won USF season tickets for the Bulls' inaugural football season.

"He was a high school coach at one point," Robinson said of Steinbrenner. "He said that high school coaches were oftentimes underappreciated, until kids left and got older, and he also said that high school coaches made a significant impact on his life."

• • •

It wasn't enough to oversee the Yankee dynasty's resurrection in the late 1990s. After all, Steinbrenner himself said winning was second only to breathing.

There were other things in need of resuscitation.

Hillsborough County's transition from junior highs to middle schools more than a decade ago had come with a casualty: middle school athletics. In 1998, a program of four sports was proposed at a cost of roughly $186,000, but school board members said that money was more urgently needed elsewhere.

Private donations, the board said, would be the program's only chance. As if on cue, Steinbrenner again showed his bombastic side was trumped only by his benevolent one. He pledged $200,000.

"Oh, golly, I think there were four or five basic sports that we put in at that point in time," said Korhn, former Hillsborough County athletic director, then the assistant AD. "He provided money for transportation as well as basic uniforms and supplies and equipment."

Today, by George, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders play on. Hillsborough County's middle schools feature boys and girls teams for basketball, track and soccer, as well as boys flag football and girls volleyball.

"It has now been picked up and funded by the board, but at that time the funding wasn't available," Korhn said. "If there was a need, he would step up to the plate. There were so many things he did that people didn't know about."

How Steinbrenner invested in the youth market 07/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 15, 2010 7:43am]

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