ALL HAIL THE CHIEF Steinbrenner's return creates a mob scene of press and presence

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- If George Steinbrenner isn't the most powerful person in sports, he certainly ranks near the top in impact.

That much was reiterated yesterday, when the New York Yankees owner officially returned after serving a 30-month suspension from baseball. The words on the credential worn by the media and club officials said it all: "The Boss Is Back."

Steinbrenner wasn't atop a white horse, as he was on the cover of last week's Sports Illustrated, and he didn't drop in via a helicopter. But his presence was felt 90 minutes before his arrival, when more than 200 members of the sporting press already had gathered.

Canceling a more elaborately planned entrance of having a Marilyn Monroe look-alike and a George Bush look-alike to precede him at the park in deference to the shock of the World Trade Center bombing, Steinbrenner nevertheless made his appearance dramatic -- the old-fashioned way. He walked over from the executive airport next to the Yankees training facility.

What followed was as bizarre and chaotic a scene as any in Steinbrenner's turbulent 20-year career in (and out of) baseball. He instantly became a Pied Piper.

The media had been alerted to be on hand by 10:30 a.m., precisely the time a plane circled the stadium trailing a banner that read, "Welcome Back George." Less than two minutes later, Steinbrenner made the scene.

The first sighting was outside the parking lot of the stadium where the Yankees had just begun workouts. Once he was spotted, it took Steinbrenner longer to walk 158 steps to the field than it took Bill Clinton to ride in the inaugural parade and deliver his first address as president.

Although a more organized meeting had been planned, Steinbrenner chose to conduct this mass interview the same way he has in the past -- in an impromptu fashion. Most of it took place in the parking lot -- each time he started to move, he advanced no more than a dozen steps -- before spilling onto the sidelines of the playing field.

Through it all, Steinbrenner, 62, maintained his sense of humor and defended his often-hasty decisions in the past.

"Have you fired anybody yet?" was one of the first questions he was asked.

"I can't. I haven't been able to get to them," he said.

He quickly was asked about the status of manager Buck Showalter.

"I like everything about him that I've seen," said Steinbrenner. "He's got a three-year contract.

"He's got the respect of Joe [Molloy, Steinbrenner's son-in-law, who replaced him as the club's chief executive officer], and the respect of Gene [Michael, general manager]," said Steinbrenner. remember when I first saw him in our minor-league camp, he impressed me as a guy you wanted to pay attention to."

No job guarantee

However, Steinbrenner stopped short of making any long-range promises, as he had done in the past.

"Does that mean you guarantee that Showalter will manage the entire year?" Steinbrenner was asked.

"Is there any guarantee that you'll be standing here with a microphone next year?" Steinbrenner replied.

It would be another hour before the owner and manager would meet for the first time in seven years, and already the manager's job security had been put in question. Steinbrenner's personality invites such questions, but he defended his track record of hiring and firing managers.

"I don't know how many [managers] we had," said Steinbrenner, "but people forget that we had one [Billy Martin] five times and another [Lou Piniella] two times. A lot of newspapers have had more managing editors than we've had managers since I've been here."

NB For the most part, Steinbrenner declined to discuss the circum

stances that led to his suspension, although he did say that he never viewed it as permanent. Former commissioner Fay Vincent suspended Steinbrenner for his association with gambler Howard Spira while allegedly trying to obtain damaging evidence on former Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield.

"I'm not going to get into that," he said. "I'm just happy to be back."

But, when he was asked if he ever thought this day (his return) might not come, Steinbrenner made it obvious he never believed he was banned for life.

"If I had felt that way," he said in his most serious tone of the day, "I never would have entered into any type of agreement [with Vincent]."

Steinbrenner said he felt the worst the day of the suspension, "when I saw the hurt on my family."

He likened yesterday's return to when he first took control of the Yankees in 1973 and his team's first World Series appearance in 1976. "You can't leave something you love without missing it a lot," said Steinbrenner.

"It's exciting, almost like it was in 1973, when we came in, and in 1976, when we were in the World Series the first time, even though we lost four straight. I'm looking forward to getting that feeling back."

A familiar face

It took Steinbrenner an hour and 40 minutes to get on the field. En route, despite being surrounded by the media horde, he stopped when he heard a familiar voice call his name.

He looked up into the crowd watching his grand entrance and instantly recognized the face.

"Mary, how are you? It's good to see you again," said Steinbrenner. The woman was Mary Homer, 75, who was a waitress at a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale that Steinbrenner frequented when he bought the Yankees. "She took care of me and my children," he said, instructing security people to bring Ms. Homer into the restricted area.

The ensuing embrace was a photographer's dream -- but only the first of three that would follow in rapid order. There was a woman in a wheelchair, Barbara Donnelly, whom Steinbrenner befriended 10 years ago.

And, once inside the stadium, Steinbrenner was called over to the box-seat railing, where he kissed a baby in the arms of another acquaintance. Other than a brief stop outside the batting cage, where Matt Nokes and Dion James were hitting, all of this took place before Steinbrenner got a chance to shake Showalter's hand.

Cameras were reloaded faster than six-shooters in a Western movie. And Steinbrenner's media supporting cast was probably bigger than that of "Gone With The Wind."

Inevitably, the conversation got around to the 1993 Yankees, and Steinbrenner wasted no time declaring his team a contender.

"I like what I see," he said. "I see a guy at third base [Wade Boggs] who used to drive me nuts.

"I think he [Boggs] will team up with [Don] Mattingly very nicely at the corners. It should be like [Chris] Chambliss and [Graig] Nettles were in the '70s. I see the ingredients of a very good team. I think we'll be back, right in the middle of everything."

Steinbrenner even said that the circus atmosphere surrounding his return would help his team. "This is good," he said. "It will teach them what it's like in New York."

No disruption on field

If anybody in a Yankees uniform was intimidated by yesterday's return of The Boss, he did a good job hiding it. The day's workout somehow was not disrupted, and it was basically business as usual on the field. "I'm sure there was a little extra hop in their step," Showalter said of his players.

"This time of year, before you start playing, the players get a little bored [with the routine]," said Showalter, who had a late-afternoon meeting scheduled with Steinbrenner. "I'm sure it picked them up a little bit."

Did anything about the day surprise the manager?

"Not really," said Showalter, who clearly had received a briefing on what to expect.

As for his situation, given Steinbrenner's past performance with managers, Showalter said he was unconcerned.

"You have to be careful not to believe everything people tell you, and form your own opinion," he said.

"That's the way I am. I take people the way they are, as I see them. I know you all probably think that's naive, but that's the way I am," said the second-year manager.

In the clubhouse, team captain Mattingly seemed satisfied that things had picked up where they left off 2 1/2 years ago.

"I've been in his corner the whole time he's been gone," said the first baseman. "With him, you know there's a common goal to win it all, and that's why we're all here. To me, this is good news."

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