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Five world titles and a few Hall of Famers later, Yankees celebrate 25th spring in Tampa

John Romano | Derek Jeter was a rookie and Joe Torre had just been hired when the Yankees began spring training at Steinbrenner Field.
Joan Steinbrenner threw out the first pitch to Yankees catcher Jorge Posada in 2008 when Legends Field was renamed in honor of her husband George. Mr. Steinbrenner passed away two years later, and Mrs. Steinbrenner died in 2018. [Times]

TAMPA — It’s been a week for nostalgia around George M. Steinbrenner Field. The Yankees opened their 25th spring at the ballpark in the heart of Tampa, and were feted with political hugs and community kisses. The mayor threw out the first pitch at the opener. The City Council presented a plaque.

And now the hometown Rays arrive for a game today to offer, what? Gritted teeth? Fake niceties?

All these years later, these cramped living quarters remain one of the more odd arrangements in sports. The Yankees seem beloved in their adopted home while the Rays are still struggling to gain traction with their own fans.

Not to mention that, while Tampa Bay has compiled the fifth-best record in the majors since 2008, the Rays have still finished behind the Yankees in the American League East in nine of the past 12 seasons.

Happy Anniversary!

While the Rays have co-existed in the spring with the Phillies, Blue Jays and Pirates nearby, the Yankees have always been a little different. Their support doesn’t just come from New York tourists but, noticeably, from local residents.

Part of it is demographics — more than a few New York-area residents have migrated down here. Part of it is the Yankees brand — there may not be a more iconic name in North American sports.

And a lot of it is the way the Steinbrenner family has embraced Tampa.

“Our (family’s) roots have been here 45 years and that’s a long time," said managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner. “We’ve always been active in the community in a lot of different ways. I think you’re right, part of it is the franchise’s long history and the iconic players and the world championships. And the other is we know a lot of people around town and they know us. They know we’ve been here for a long, long time and have no intention of leaving."

Make no mistake, this is home for the Yankees boss. Not Cleveland where he spent his earliest years and where his father made his riches. Not even New York where his name is royalty and his business is widely known.

Hal Steinbrenner grew up riding bicycles down tree-lined streets in Carrollwood, while his father George was commanding the back pages of New York’s tabloids every summer.

George Steinbrenner moved his family and shipping interests to Tampa in the mid-1970s and the Yankees later followed. First, was the minor league operations. Later was George’s office and the spring training complex.

At the time Steinbrenner Field was built — known then as Legends Field — it was a revelation compared to the comfy old spring ballparks built a generation earlier or the nondescript stadiums that were beginning to pop up.

“Anyone who says they don’t want a facility like Legends Field is lying," said then-Reds general manager Jim Bowden. “It shatters the curve."

Which was the objective, like most things George Steinbrenner did. On the day of the first game, with Hall of Famers Phil Rizzuto, Whitey Ford, Catfish Hunter and Hoyt Wilhelm around as guests, Steinbrenner was in the parking lot directing traffic.

He may have been larger than life in New York — and fodder for lampooning on Seinfeld — but Steinbrenner cut a less imposing figure in Tampa. City Councilman Guido Maniscalco said it wasn’t unusual to run into the Yankees owner at a Tampa IHOP.

“He was just a regular down-to-earth guy," Maniscalco said of Steinbrenner, who passed away in 2010.

The Steinbrenner family also left its mark on charities in Tampa Bay, giving to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay, the Florida Orchestra, the Gold Shield Foundation and other programs that provide scholarships for the children of fallen military personnel.

Has that sense of community been a large part of the franchise’s popularity in Tampa? It certainly hasn’t hurt.

“We’ve always felt a responsibility to any community we’re in, everybody should, right?" Hal Steinbrenner said. “That’s the correct thing to do."

Officially, the Yankees and Rays are partners in Major League Baseball. Steinbrenner says he supports Rays owner Stu Sternberg’s quest to look into the sister city concept with Montreal, and he doesn’t believe a potential Rays stadium in Ybor City would have any effect on the Yankees spring training operations.

But it can’t be easy for the Rays knowing an unusually large portion of their fan base is devoted to a rival team.

“We have a long history and we are a global brand even outside the borders of the United States," Steinbrenner said. “If you go to Europe or Asia you’re going to see a Yankee cap on occasion, or maybe more than just on occasion. We’re very proud of that. We draw well in just about every city we go to. I’m not bragging when I say that. It’s just a statistical fact."

Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report.

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