George and His Florida Jungle
When Theresa Castro threw a party, you knew it. We would go up on a weekend in Ocala, and she set us up in a little cottage. The kids went nuts when they saw the basket of fruit, and the old man did not mind that there was a bottle of something disguised in the arrangement.
Theresa’s parties were memorable in every respect, not the least of which was the presence of important people. Former Gov. Claude Kirk was a regular attendee. Notable horse types, who were often important in other meadows, were also there (Ocala is horse country). There were always a dozen folks from Fort Lauderdale, the usual suspects, who enjoyed mingling with the surprise guests. The big house opened on a horse farm, and the view from the large terrace was out of “Gatsby.” With a few cocktails, we between the rich and famous, watching the horses play in the fields below. One of them, a guest, not a horse, was George Steinbrenner. He owned the Yankees.
I met him. I don’t recall what we discussed. He was young into his Yankee ownership (this was the late ‘70s), but his name was already household. Tough guy to work for. The man I met so casually seemed nothing like a tyrant. He was pleasant and easygoing, only there as a neighbor. He was into horses and had a nearby farm. That was the charm of Theresa and Bernard Castro’s Ocala: Almost everybody counted, but nobody kept count.
Not much later, we did some stories on the Yankees minor league team in Fort Lauderdale. I traveled around the state with the young players; this was Class A, the bottom rung of pro baseball. They trained at Little Yankee Stadium, and their locker rooms were big-time. If you have never gone through Marine boot camp (or any boot camp, for that matter), try minor league baseball in that era. The coaches screamed at the players; they screamed at the bus driver if the poor fool was a minute late. You cannot invent the multiple obscenities they screamed routinely, day after day, trip after trip. I recall one incident over in the Tampa Bay area, when this young assistant coach, a rangy blond kid, not much older than his players, blew out a bus driver so violently that I thought the driver was going to break into tears, get off the bus and commit suicide.
This was George Steinbrenner’s minor league team, the first step toward Yankee Stadium. I wondered if he knew what went on at this level, or cared. But for sure, the kids knew. There was one young fellow just out of the University of Miami who was touted to go all the way. His batting average in college was off the charts, but in Class A he was struggling, maybe hitting .270. He was a mild mannered fellow, and I asked him what he thought of the atmosphere, this boot camp mentality, this abuse of bus drivers, taking these constant negatives from a franchise premier among the legends of baseball.
This kid did not make it, by the way, but I recall his words today, upon hearing the news of George Steinbrenner’s death today.
“Mister Steinbrenner takes a lot of pride in this organization,” the kid said. “And I’m not going to be the one to screw it up.”
It’s called the pride of the Yankees.