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Inside Man: A Bronx Tale (Part Four)
Posted By Alex Belth On January 17, 2008 @ 10:25 am In Bronx Banter | Comments Disabled
It is a cold, gray December morning. Ray Negron pulls up in front of Yankee Stadium in a white GMC, a leased car he uses when he’s in New York. He is fifteen minutes late. The car is messy—Reggie Jackson would not approve.
With him is Aris Sakellaridis, a stocky, square-jawed retired corrections officer in his mid-forties. He is originally from Washington Heights. “I’m a ghetto Greek,” he says with a laugh. Aris is wearing a gold Georgia Tech baseball cap and a white jump suit with a thick navy blue strip with gold trim down the side. Around his waist is a black fanny pack. Sakellaridis lives on a pension; he wrote Retired Yankee Numbers, a glossy picture book illustrated by the caricaturist, John Pennisi. Sakellaridis hands me his card, which features an illustration of himself by Pennisi. Sakellaridis is smiling broadly wearing a baseball uniform with the number 69.
Negron is on his way to speak at a community center and has agreed to make a slight detour to show me his old neighborhood in Hunt’s Point but he’s not sure exactly how to get there. “Outside of Yankee Stadium I don’t know shit about the Bronx,” he says. Negron tells me that a niece that he’s never met—the daughter of one of his estranged half-brothers—had recently contacted him through the Internet. He talks about future book projects and how he approaches his work with humility and sincerity, and he is annoyed that there is a perception that his intentions aren’t always genuine.
“You know what worries me honestly,” says Aris cocking his head to the side. “Steinbrenner, he ain’t in as good a health today from what you read. What happens when he goes? They going to get rid of Ray? But hey, Ray lives, man,” Aris continues. “He’ll be alright. Ha-ha-ha.”
When we reach Hunt’s Point, a desolate neighborhood filled with warehouses and low-level apartment buildings, Ray stops in front of his father’s old apartment building. “It looks a hell of a lot nicer now,” says Ray. “They cleaned this shit up. Believe me, it wasn’t like this. It was Heroin. Total, total.”
A muzak version of “White Christmas” plays on the radio.
Negron tells me that his biological father died two years ago. “We never had the words we needed to have until just before he died,” says Negron, “and that’s because he brought it up out of guilt. I said, ‘Look, I’m at peace with my life so don’t worry about it. I’ve had a good life. Don’t worry about it, I’ve had a good life.’ But you know what, it was haunting him.”
Negron drives away from the building. After stopping to ask for directions three times, we arrive at the Soundview Community Action Center. The center consists of a large room one flight up from street level. Loud Salsa music play over a sound system. The walls are lined with hand-written signs: “Say No to Guns,” “Stop the Violence,” and “We Want You to Feel Safe.” In the back of the room is a Christmas tree surrounded by two tables covered with wrapped presents and copies of The Boy of Steel.
A heavyset man from Coca-Cola, who is sponsoring the event, is here with his wife and young daughter. The two local community leaders who have organized Ray’s speech plan to give out a gift to everyone who accompanies them on a demonstration immediately after Negron’s speech. They will be marching through the neighborhood to protest the murder of an elderly woman by two teenagers working for local drug dealers.
There are about thirty people in the room, mostly mothers and grandmothers and young kids. A group of hard-looking teenagers lurks downstairs but they do not venture inside. Negron sits in a shiny red chair and the kids in the room gather around him as a photographer sets up a shot. Aris moves around the room and takes his own pictures. “I want a book, I want a book,” says one kid. A young teenager dressed in a military uniform leans against the wall in the back of the room and says, “I want to go home and go back to sleep.”
Negron starts out by talking about the Boss and about The Boy of Steel being about “love and hope.” Then he says, “When I walk into this place and see a sign, ‘Say No to Guns,’ it breaks my heart. Because this is our community and how many times do we pick up the paper, and some kid who had nothing to do with anything but he got shot by some idiot or whatever. We all know the pain because I’ve gone through it. I’m not a celebrity or anything like that. I just want to see my family live. And it starts with your family, it starts with your kids.
“I’m no better than anybody else. I’m just giving it my best shot. Another guy. Omar Minaya, of the New York Mets. He’s not better than anybody else, but he gave it his best shot. He doesn’t have a college degree, he never went to college. But he decided that he was going to try and do the best he can. And he had good support. If we, as adults, support these guys over here,” Negron motions to the kids in the room, “then that’s what this is all about. I’m tired of going to funerals, I’m tired of burying our family. We ain’t seeing them again. They’re gone. I don’t want to go to their funerals,” Negron points at the young kids sitting in the front row. “My promise to the people here in the Bronx is that I’m going to continue doing these books every year, and bring money to the community that way.
“Hey listen, Coca Cola. I’ve never met you before. But I love what you’re doing here because it’s real. You’ve got your family here. I’ve met a lot of people from big corporations who come down here, go down into the tough neighborhoods, but they’re not bringing their kids, they’re not bringing their dogs, they’re not bringing anybody. They just show up, make an appearance and they leave. Okay? That doesn’t work for me. Cause that’s not real. You’re real. And I thank you, I love you very much for that, okay? To everybody who is here in the neighborhood everyday. I’m not. I just show up and take a little bow, and all that kind of stuff. I go back to my house, I write my books and I try, in essence, to create things that will help out the kids. Listen, we got the next Mariah Carey, the next Robert DeNiro, they’re here.” Negron’s voice rises. “They’re right here. So I say ‘hi’ to my people, man. My people is everybody who just says ‘hello.’ I don’t give a shit if you are black, white or whatever. You’re my people.” There is a slight commotion in the room, young kids gasping and then giggling at Negron’s profanity. “Hey, let’s not kid each other. When we go outside that’s what you hear, right?”
“Yeah,” answer the kids in the room.
“So I’m supposed to act like a phony? Eh? No. I’m going to put it straight because you know what? If you believe in forever—do you believe in forever?”
“Then life is just a one-night stand. This is a very short trip, and what I say here today, most of you are going to forget it tomorrow. But I’m hoping one of you remembers.”
Negron looks to the back of the room where about fifteen of the older teenage boys are now standing. He says something in Spanish and the boys answer, “Si.”
“Okay, mucias gracias.”
The audience starts to clap when Negron holds up his hand. “I just realized one thing. Sometimes I get talking and I get too emotional and I forgot the little guys, okay?” He points to the kid in the front row. “I apologize for saying that bad word before, okay, because I forgot that you guys were here, and it’s a bad word. What I said was bad.”
The little kids crack up.
* * * *
Five months later, on a clear and sunny Sunday morning at Yankee Stadium, Negron watches batting practice from the seats just next to the Yankee dugout. He is wearing olive slacks and a forest green Windbreaker over a black button-up shirt which covers a light green sweater. He is talking about getting older.
“My first son is just finishing up college. My sixteen-year old thinks he knows everything, thinks he’s a gangster. I worry about him constantly. I’m a nervous parent. My emotions are like a mother. My youngest doesn’t leave my sight when he’s with me. I had too much independence as a kid. I know how lucky I was. In my family, everybody had independence. How many of them are dead? If that’s independence then I’m going to be a haggling mother, period.”
Negron just signed a two book deal with HarperCollins. The first book will be about an encounter between Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth, and the second one will be about Yankee Stadium. Negron didn’t make any money off of The Boy of Steel—they went directly to Yankee Charities—but he will off the next two books, though he is donating a portion of his earnings to charities.
Ray is philosophical about his future with the Yankees. “Let’s face facts, I’m not going to be with the Yankees forever, so I’m trying to find a niche for myself. Look, the Boss has told me that as long as he’s here, I’d always be a Yankee, and that’s all I can go by. George is here, I’m a Yankee, and that’s the bottom line. Someday, he might not be here—or I may not be here—then the new people, the new regime might say, ‘Okay, that’s enough, get him outta here.’ And I’ve come to grips with that.
“I’m close with some of the younger players like Cano, Melky and Chien-Ming Wang,” Ray says, “but even when I talk to them I have to be careful not to step on any of the coaches’ toes. Baseball is much more corporate now then when I started. Back then it was, ‘Reggie’s acting crazy, Ray, go talk to him.’ Now, you have to be mindful of a lot more people. That’s why I love the work I do with kids at schools—eight, nine, ten, eleven year olds, them I can get too. I know that. The older kids are already too hard to reach. If I have twenty years left to live, then I have ten years to be able to give to the kids. After that, when I’m in my sixties—especially if I look like I’m in my sixties—the kids aren’t going to listen to me anymore.”
“Ray’s found his natural calling in the charity work he’s doing with children and his book,” says his friend Bob Klapisch. “Baseball is his culture, but this is a whole new enterprise and he’s consumed by it. He used to have a real finger on the pulse of the team, on a day-to-day basis. But he’s drifted. He’s really not a source anymore.”
The visiting Seattle Mariners are taking batting practice. Negron spots Jose Guillen, the Mariner’s volatile right fielder who has played for nine teams over an eleven year career, standing behind the batting cage. “Look, there’s Guillen. His agent came to me a couple of years ago when he was having problems, and I got together with him and hooked him up with an anger management counselor. He’s actually not a bad kid.” Negron holds his arm out and catches Guillen’s attention. Guillen, who is standing around a couple of coaches, including Tony Pena, the Yankees first base coach, waves back.
Negron watches them intensely. “Look, see, he’s telling them the story of how I helped him, look, you see? See that?” Pena squints and looks back into the stands for a moment. When he recognizes Negron, he too holds his arm up in salute. Several minutes later, Guillen trots by, leans over the first row of seats and shakes Negron’s hand. He is a svelte, good-looking man with an open face. Surrounded by kids and adults pleading for autographs, the two men chat for a moment and then Guillen is off to the outfield to stretch.
“He can’t sign a ball because we’re Yankee fans?” laments a grown man behind us.
Negron, satisfied, does not hear the man. “You see,” he says, “You see the respect? A lot of these guys feel the same way about me. Bartolo Colon, Manny Ramirez.”
It is important to Negron that he’s openly embraced by the athletes he’s helped over the years. It is validation for a man who has been on the receiving end of a lot of abuse from the superstars he’s cared for. Then why is he so successful?
“You have to have absolutely no ego at all,” he says. “Willing to take an ass whipping cause that what it takes, whether it’s Reggie, Doc, Billy, you name it. You’ve got to be willing to accept the fact that you are going to get slammed sometimes. They have to let go and you are going to get a whipping, you are a sounding board, that’s your place. Even though they are looked upon as Gods, they are just people, more vulnerable than most. I feel it is important to try and keep them standing.”
I ask him if he ever feels resentful of the abuse he’s taken.
“Resentful is not the right word, but I went through a lot of pain,” he says. “It hurt. When I worked for Reggie I would go to his apartment before I went to the Stadium. Sometimes I’d put the key into the lock and hold it there cause I’d wonder which Reggie I’d get that day. With Doc Gooden, he was on my case so bad one time, we were driving across the Howard Franklyn Bridge and I pulled over and got out of the car. I said, ‘Okay Doc get out.’ ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ I said, ‘We’re going to fight, right now. You’re going to beat my ass, you are bigger and stronger than me. But I want to get it over with cause I can’t take this shit.’ And he started laughing like crazy. ‘You’re crazy, get back in the car.’ And nothing happened. Doc knew that I wouldn’t abandon him.”
“One of Ray’s failings is that he has a servant’s mentality,” says Klapisch. “He undercuts himself. When he was with Gooden, he put himself at risk, both personally and professionally. Whenever he negotiated a deal with George in the past, he’d ask for $20-25,000 a year. I used to say to him, ‘Are you insane?’ He let the Indians and the Rangers rip him off, he let Gooden rip him off. They all used and abused him. He is his worst advocate. I’d tell him, ‘You are a professional negotiator and yet you can’t step up for yourself? Think of your kids.’ ‘I know, I know,’ he’d say. He was lacking the courage. But he’s developed over time. The book has given him so much confidence.”
“I never thought that I deserved a lot of money,” says Negron. “It was different when I was negotiating for someone else. That wasn’t for me. I wasn’t a player. I’m just a guy who is working in the game. I thought it was a privilege to be working in baseball. Period. Hey, when I started, I was either going to be in jail or be a bat boy. And they were going to pay me too? When my cousin was sick with AIDS, before he died, he told me, ‘You were lucky you got caught.’ I live with that.”
Negron has always felt more comfortable operating in the shadows, content to catch the reflected glow of more famous men. At the same time, he enjoys the heat of the big stage. After Reggie Jackson hit his third consecutive home run in the deciding game of the 1977 World Series, it was Ray, with the expert timing of a stage manager, who nudged the slugger out of the dugout for a curtain call. Ray doesn’t mind the heat from back stage. And now, finally, he is comfortable on his own smaller stage talking to kids. To them Ray Negron is a star, even if it is just because he knows the big stars.
“Should I make more than I do, yeah I could make more. I do a lot of things other people don’t do. I work hard to make the image of the Yankees everything I can do with the youth of the city. These kids don’t ask me about my book they ask me about the Yankees. I know that I’m capable of expressing what the beauty of the Yankees is all about. And I know I’m getting over, as they say in the streets, because I’m always asked back. I’m mean something to the Yankees because of my relationship to the community.
“I’m not financially rich,” Negron continues, “but emotionally, I’m the Howard Hughes of heart and soul emotion, spiritual, wealth. I’m a mega-billionaire that way, cause I know I’ve done what I’m supposed to do, okay? I’m no savior, but we can only try to do the right thing in a world when most people don’t.”
Negron pats my knee and asks if I’ve got everything that I need. He excuses himself to give his personal tour to a father and his three sons, one of three families he’s showing around Yankee Stadium today. He will make sure to give them each something to remember, on the tour he’s given hundreds of times, on the tour he will make brand new for them.
Photograph appears courtesy Ray Negron.
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