A Four-Part Bronx Banter Exclusive
[Author's Note: This story was written last summer. It covers Ray Negron's life from the spring of 2006 through the spring of '07. Some of the basic facts stated in the piece have changed: Joe Torre is no longer the manager of the Yankees; Hank and Hal Steinbrenner have taken control of the team; Negron has just completed his seventh children's book for Harper Collins. But, despite these events, the essence of Ray's story remains true. I hope you enjoy.]
"Let me show you the Boss’s suite," says Ray Negron. It is a cool evening in early May, 2006, and Negron’s boss, George Steinbrenner, the principal owner of the New York Yankees, is out of town. Several hours before game time, Negron, 51, is walking down the outer corridor of the loge section at Yankee Stadium, his head cocked like an upper classman with the run of the school. He exudes an insouciant confidence, the kind of man who is used to keeping his cool in hot situations. Negron has short black hair and skin the color of café au lait. His large, liquid brown eyes and long eyelashes are almost feminine; his cheeks sag–the sign of a thin man growing older—and lend a sense of gravity to an otherwise boyish countenance. As usual, Negron looks crisp. He is wearing a gray, patterned suit and slim brown shoes. On his right ring finger is a massive gold World Series ring from the 1996 Yankees.
"I can’t wait for the new Stadium," Negron says. "Maybe I’ll get an office."
"The ubiquitous Ray Negron," a veteran New York sportswriter calls him. Negron is a gypsy, constantly on the move, from the executive suites through the press box down to the locker room. He does not even have his own desk; instead, he totes everything he needs in a leather-bound book with a Spaulding logo embossed on the cover: Negron serves as a director of community relations for the sporting goods company, one of his many jobs. The book is filled with notes scribbled in different colored inks–reminders, phone numbers and addresses.
Negron knows everybody and stops to say hello to security guards and executives, retired sportswriters, scouts, and current players. Negron works for the Yankees as a special advisor to Steinbrenner and is primarily employed as an all-purpose utility man. He represents the club at the Kip’s Bay Boys and Girls club, the Hackensack University Medical Center, and grass roots community centers in the Bronx. Like a greeter in a casino, he escorts business men and their children through the corridors of the Stadium, giving his own private tour, and he schmoozes with celebrity visitors, like Patti Labelle, Regis Philbin and Richard Gere, making sure they are comfortable in their seats. Negron, of Puerto Rican and Cuban ancestry, is an avuncular figure to the team’s young Latin players like Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera. This summer, Negron will enlist the two, along with other Yankee players, to visit classrooms, hospitals and boys and girls clubs around the tristate area, as he promotes his first children’s book, The Boy of Steel, a story about a young boy with cancer who becomes bat boy for the Yankees for a day.
Few people know Yankee Stadium as well as Negron and few people have been around Steinbrenner’s Yankees longer. And it all happened by chance. In 1973, Steinbrenner’s first year as team owner, the Boss caught Negron, a skinny kid with an afro, spray painting an "NY" logo on the outside of Yankee Stadium. But instead of handing him over to the police, Steinbrenner made Negron a bat boy, issuing the kind of punishment that is the stuff of a boy’s wildest fantasies. So began a career in baseball that has lasted more than thirty years. Negron has done everything from shine the players’ shoes and collect their dirty jockstraps, to bring them food from their favorite restaurants and park their cars. He has been an agent, an actor, an advisor, and a liaison; a confidant, a sounding board and a whipping boy to some of the biggest egos in the game. He is whatever he needs to be.
Negron has founded a career off his serendipitous meeting with Steinbrenner and everything that has happened next—from Billy and Reggie to Doc and Darryl. "The Boss essentially saved my life and I’ll never forget that," says Negron, touching my arm. He likes physical contact, and occasionally touches his listener in a jocular, reassuring way to make sure you’re listening. He speaks in a measured, cautious manner, his raspy voice tinged with an unmistakable Brooklyn accent. Ray speaks so often in public that in private his conversation sometimes feels rehearsed, like he’s an actor repeating the same lines over and over in a play. Yet he is so sincere that it feels as if he’s telling you something for the first time, even if it’s a variation of something he’s said countless times before.
Negron pauses and then adds, "Not saved, really, he gave me a life."