NEW YORK -- It was sort of like old times when Yankees owner George Steinbrenner held court in his office. At 64, he has mellowed a bit, perhaps. He no longer suggests any of his players should walk out with the beer vendors the way he once did while chastising a struggling Dave Righetti. For now he would prefer to cast his image as a great emancipator.
Meeting with selected media in his spacious Yankee Stadium office before Saturday's game, Steinbrenner said two phone calls last month from Bill Goodstein, the agent for Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, will lead to Steinbrenner's having a meeting with Strawberry sometime after next week.
"I know about all the problems he's had, but he was a young man who was important to baseball at one point," Steinbrenner said. "In my mind, I wonder if he can be important to baseball again. . . . But equally important, his life still has a lot to go ahead of it. And if I can be a help to a young man like that, I want to do it. And I want to stand with him as he attempts to overcome certain things."
Strawberry has an arbitration hearing scheduled for June 19 to see if he is still the property of the San Francisco Giants and is eligible to resume playing ball June 24 after his suspension for violation of baseball's substance-abuse policy. Steinbrenner isn't sure he will be permitted to sign Strawberry, but he's willing to try if allowed.
"I'll stand with him as long as he understands how I am," Steinbrenner said. "If I pledge my loyalty to him and he disappoints me, he'll wish that he never even heard the name George Steinbrenner. Steve Howe knows that.
"Howe is tested more than the horses in the Belmont. He never knows when the tests are coming. He knows that if he crosses me on it, he will wish that he were living in a different country under a different name."
Steinbrenner also said he would be willing to meet and talk with Gooden after his year-long suspension. "This isn't a Gooden-Strawberry problem," Steinbrenner said. "This is a United States of America problem. If there is good left in these young men, I don't want their lives to end wrong. . . . I don't know if Gooden can still pitch or Strawberry can still hit. But it's tough when the world turns its back on you, so to speak."
Getting back to Strawberry, Steinbrenner said, "If you thought this was an isolated guy, that's one thing. . . . This isn't isolated. We have problems with dependency throughout all society in this country. Maybe we've got to start enforcing the laws and going after what we should go after and that's the source, the suppliers."
Finally he turned to other issues, the shaving of goatees and the dismal performance of his team. "I take full blame for allowing [the hair issue] to happen," he said. "Jack McDowell, who I have great respect for and who is a very nice young man, came to me in spring training. He said [the goatee] was very important to him. He said it really is a psychological thing for him. I said, OK, I'll go along with it for a while. I told Buck Showalter and I know Buck wasn't happy. So I take full responsibility for the original decision.
"What I didn't figure was it would be player see, player do . . . I thought maybe they'd understand that about Jack and try to make him feel at home here as a Yankee.
"But when I started watching television, this guy would have [a goatee] one day and this guy would have it another day."
On Wednesday, he ordered Showalter to tell the players to shave their chins after the Yankees ended their 1-8 trip. Steinbrenner insisted he talked with Showalter about doing it days earlier.
"It had nothing to do with won-lost," Steinbrenner said. "It had nothing to do with the road trip. It was strictly my decision. I just got tired of seeing it because they're such good-looking guys and the beards were beginning to make them look not like good-looking guys." As for the performance of his team, in last place, 8 1/2 games behind Boston, he said, "I'm not ready to hang it up yet . . . I'll stand by this. I said it will be a better race than the Kentucky Derby and it will be. And I also said that the key to me was the team that stayed healthy had the best chance of winning.
"That's exactly what I said. And God, I wish I hadn't been so prolific. If anybody has been hurt by injuries, it has been us. We have really been consummated by them."
He was running downhill now, engaging in malaprops, using prolific and consummated when he meant prophetic and consumed. He had one more thing to add.
"There is nothing I enjoy about last place. Second place is like kissing your sister, so you can imagine what last place is." he said.
"We will do better, we will improve. I'm not hitting any panic buttons. I said this before the first game was played, when guys were talking about getting the Yankee swagger back. I didn't like that talk. And now maybe we should substitute a 't' [in stagger] for the 'w'. "
And then his team went out and staggered to its 14th loss in 17 games.