In 1991, the Pan Am Games were in Havana, Cuba. Jim Flowers and I were the managers for the USA Swim Team. When we arrived at the village, the conditions were “difficult” for an American team used to a higher standard. One key item in the 98 degree heat (and no air conditioning) was the availability of water. We had none.
Jim and I went to the village office in search of answers. (Our mantra for this entire trip became “WE GOTTA KNOW.”) The Cuban beaurocracy, like its Russian sponsors, was one where NO ONE wanted to make a decision until it came down from far, far above. Hence they never had an answer for anything and we found ourselves constantly saying “WE GOTTA KNOW.”) JimI and I said “we gotta know” as a greeting to each other for the next 15 years!
After three trips to the center and no response, we went to visit the USOC Center. While there trying to explain our lack of water supplies to a USOC Staffer, (who kept repeating that this was a function of the organizing committee) who should appear in front of our faces but a very concerned and “in our face” George Steinbrenner.
“What’s the problem, fellas?”
“Sir, our team has no water, the Cubans can’t make a decision to get it to us, and the USOC seems to think getting water to us is a Cuban problem. We’re getting nowhere and we have a bunch of swimmers who need water, they’re drinking coke and other garbage just to relieve the heat.”
“I Got It. Say no More. You’ll have water in 15 minutes.”
I rolled my eyes, having read all the “bad stuff” over the years about George and his overbearing way of running things. The truck with water bottles rolled up at the “dorm” 12 minutes later.. Quicker than it took JimI and I to walk back there.
George took care of his athletes.
Ten days later, meet over, we headed for the airport and “knew” something was wrong. Turned out that the Russians had announced that morning in Moscow that they were withdrawing financial support of their Cuban client, and no Cuban knew what that meant for the future of the Cuban economy (or country for that matter.)
And this on the day after closing ceremonies.
They moved us twice in four hours, from one airport hanger to another, waiting for a plane to take us 90 miles home to Miami. The Cubans were uneasy and our athletes (and coaches and all of us) began to become a little uneasy. Was some political stuff about to make us pawns and delay our return home (or worse?). The plane was now 5 hours late, and some of our athletes were clearly uneasy and looking for answers.
In the midst of this, appeared a jovial, excited, smiling, happy, George Steinbrenner, who spent 30 minutes congratulating our team, focusing on Ron Karanaugh and Mary T. Meagher, I believe. As I recall, Mary T. Was particularly uneasy with the delay. When George got done talking with her, she was smiling and laughing.
George Stayed until we were on the plane. I don’t know how he knew, but he knew. George took care of his athletes. And if you were an American, you were one of his athletes.
The man wanted to win in life. And he wanted all around him to win. And he knew how make people feel like winners. Great men generally come with great virtues and a few great weaknesses. Its part of the package. This man personified that.
Thanks Mr. Steinbrenner, for all the memories.
A Lifelong Yankee Fan. – JL