FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — George Steinbrenner is not an ogre. He is a softie, a sentimentalist and a romanticist. After his Yankees failed to win the pennant last season, he went almost immediately to Cartier jewelers and asked them to design something nice for five of his players "who are my heroes." He mentioned Dave Righetti, Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield, but said, "Maybe it's better not to be specific about the other two."
For Steinbrenner's favorites, Cartier artists produced a sterling silver arrangement with raised areas depicting the Yankees' cap and uniform and a ball and bat. In his modesty, Steinbrenner added, "Better say it was the gift of the Yankees' front office." So in the interest of accuracy, it is to be reported that, "One day last fall, the Yankees' administration trooped down to Cartier and . . . "
The Steinbrenner mood was sunny on a recent morning in the Yankees' camp. Sitting in the dugout with a couple of hard-working baseball writers, he spotted catcher Rick Cerone and said, "He's back with us because nobody else would give him a job. When he called, I wouldn't turn Rick down. We brought back Bucky Dent and Mike Ferraro (the coach he fired for making a poor decision on the base lines). And Goose Gossage wants back with us. And Graig Nettles. We'll see."
On the subject of unemployed Ron Guidry, for whom he refused to go the extra $50,000 at the signing deadline: "I know Ron's finding it tough out there. I can't wait to sign him when he comes banging on the door on the new deadline May 1. He won't be punished. If he's paid less, it's only because he'll pitch less."
And why is Hopalong Cassady, the onetime Ohio State football star, who has no baseball background, now a coach with the Yankees? "In 1957, he was one of my heroes at Ohio State, my alma mater, one of our five Heisman winners. Bet you can't name the others." Steinbrenner did: Vic Janowicz, Les Horvath and Archie Griffin (twice).
Also, "I'm impressed with that pitcher from Pittsburgh (Cecilio Guante). No argument when we told him to shave off that goatee he's been wearing for six years. He knew our rules. No whiskers, no muttonchops, no back hair below the collar line. That's a Yankee rule because I don't like beards on ballplayers. You can learn discipline from the most successful football coaches-Lombardi, Paul Brown and Shula-and look at their records."
Steinbrenner's comments were wide-ranging on this morning. He admits to being a professional wrestling nut. "Hulk Hogan is my man . . . " He said that in his racing stable he didn't have any Kentucky Derby candidates this year, but "too many trainers are rushing along their colts this year in these early stakes races. I'll bet the Derby winner is still in somebody's barn." He said, "Do me a favor and vote for (Phil) Rizzuto in the Hall of Fame balloting. The way he's ignored is shameful."
Steinbrenner left little doubt that Righetti, with his new major league record of 46 saves, is his special favorite on the Yankees. "Rig did everything to keep us in the race. Should have been the league's co-MVP along with Mattingly . . . maybe I shouldn't be saying all these nice things about him. He goes to salary arbitration next year."
Pointing far down the right field line, Steinbrenner said, "They're working there with the cameras." That is this year's new idea in the Yankees camp, Steinbrenner's command that candid cameras be focused on each pitcher to uncover faults at work, to provide hints at why the team's staff had that dismal 4.11 earned run average last year. To that end, the Yankees have eight pitching coaches here, a major league record.
"Look at our man working with Charlie Hudson," Steinbrenner said. "They've already found five things he's been doing wrong. This idea has to help us. If it doesn't, I'll be blamed, of course. . . . Now look at Lou Piniella hanging around down there with the pitching coaches like he's a savant. He knows about as much about pitching as I do. Now, if it were hitting, it'd be a different story. That's what Lou knows."
Steinbrenner admitted he eventually might regret not signing right-hander Jack Morris when he had the opportunity. "But we had to get our payroll down from the $18 million to the $16 million we aimed at." It was when speaking of salaries that Steinbrenner for the first time got a little testy.
"The market is changing," he said, "and I don't care how much Eddie Murray signed for four years ago. Salaries are down 15% and are going lower. The players have a nerve to charge conspiracy. How about their own conflict of interest? The agent for Jack Morris is also chief adviser to the players' union."
Steinbrenner no longer has a loving attitude toward Mattingly after that player won $1.975 million for next season in arbitration. "The monkey is now on his back," Steinbrenner told The New York Times. "He's no longer my Jack Armstrong type. Now, he goes into the category of modern players looking for bucks. Money seems everything to him. He has to deliver the pennant to us or he'll hear boos around the league."
Whereupon Steinbrenner turned off his crustiness and bragged about his manager, Piniella. "He won those four straight from the Red Sox at the finish," he said, "and wouldn't let his team quit." Piniella often was on thin ice last season, with the Yankees rarely in the race and Steinbrenner making threatening comments on the status of a manager nearing the end of a one-year contract. But when the season ended, he gave Piniella a two-year contract with a raise.