March 27, 2015 – Last September, I traveled to Toronto, Canada, to interview Hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky for a very special Art of Sport feature that will be published in the April Issue of Yankees Magazine.
I met up with Gretzky on a Friday afternoon in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, and having the opportunity to sit down with the greatest hockey player for nearly an hour was one of the most memorable experiences of my career. Gretzky’s kindness and candor made what I expected to be an exciting day, even better.
In the interview, I asked Gretzky about what it was like to given the name “The Great One” when he was only 10 years old.
“It certainly put some added pressure on me, but in those days, the world was a big place,” Gretzky said. “By that I mean that we would play in games that were three hours from where we lived in Brantford, and although quite a few people had already heard about me, they had never seen me play. In this day and age, we live in such a small world, and there are no secrets or surprises. If a kid has some potential, everyone has seen him play or read about him on the Internet. Even though there was a lot of attention on me, it didn’t phase me because the only people who really knew anything about me were people living between Brantford and Toronto. When I was 11 years old, a writer asked my dad if the pressure was going to get to me, and my dad said, ‘He has more fun when he’s playing than when he’s doing anything else. He enjoys hockey, and he doesn’t think about the pressure.’ My dad was right, and I felt that way until the day I retired.”
While we were discussing Gretzky’s childhood, he also shared the story of how he decided to wear No. 99 — the number that the NHL would ultimately retire in honor of The Great One.
“People think there’s some magical theory to how I got the No. 99,” said Gretzky, who won four Stanley Cup championships with the Edmonton Oilers. “But in reality, there was a kid on my junior hockey team who already had No. 9, which was Gordie Howe’s number. Kiddingly, the coach said, “Why don’t you wear two nines?” I liked that idea, and I wore 99 from that day on.”
When we began to talk about Gretzky’s professional career, I asked the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer and points leader who he viewed as his greatest competition.
“Mario Lemieux was the best player I ever faced, but Denis Potvin was the most difficult to play against,” Gretzky said. “Denis was smart, agile, tough and mean. It was never fun to face the Islanders when he was there, but we all had respect for each other.”
As much as I enjoyed every one of Gretzky’s answers, an anecdote about his final game stood out to me the most.
“The drive to Madison Square Garden was the most memorable part of my last game,” said the former New York Ranger. “I drove to The Garden that day with my dad. He drove me to my first game when I was 5 years old, and I drove him to my last game. He spent the whole ride trying to convince me to play one more year because he wanted to watch me play more games. But I knew it was the right time.”
You can find the rest of this interview — along with my conversation with Gretzky’s longtime rival Denis Potvin — in the April Issue of Yankees Magazine, which comes out on April 6.
–Alfred Santasiere III
March 7, 2015 – A few days ago, I traveled south from Tampa to Key Largo, Florida to interview former collegiate and NFL coach Jimmy Johnson for an Art of Sport feature.
I interviewed the coach at his restaurant, Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill. Our long conversation, which took place on a deck overlooking the ocean, was one of the most fun interviews I’ve ever conducted. Besides being charismatic and having a brilliant understanding of how to lead players, Johnson is a great storyteller.
With a career in coaching that spanned more than three decades and included a National Championship with the University of Miami and two Super Bowl titles with the Dallas Cowboys — in addition to a National Championship as a player at the University of Arkansas — Johnson has a large inventory of compelling stories.
As the candid coach knocked back a few Heineken Light beers, he shared several of his experiences with me, including several that came from his time at the University of Miami. In Johnson’s five-year tenure with the Hurricanes (1984-88), he earned a 52-9 record and won the 1987 National Championship while also captivating the nation with a swagger that had never been seen in college football.
“I fit in with our guys,” Johnson said. “We had a lot of inner-city guys, and I was one of the fellas. I took pride in that. To give you an idea of our swagger, when we played Oklahoma in 1986, [Oklahoma linebacker] Brian Bosworth had made some horrible comments about our guys prior to the game. When our captains, Winston Moss, Alonzo Highsmith and Jerome Brown, went out for the coin toss, they wouldn’t shake Bosworth’s hand. Instead, Winston Moss kept saying, ‘Don’t be afraid, [expletive].’ Then, we out there beat them by a bunch of touchdowns.”
Johnson also spoke about the old Miami Orange Bowl, where he won his last 26 home games as the Hurricanes’ coach.
“The crowd was on top of the field,” he said. “It was a truly a party every time we played there. Another time we played Oklahoma — whom at one point only lost three out of 35 games, and all three losses were to us — [star defensive lineman] Jerome Brown walked past where they were stretching, and began yelling “fresh meat.” Then, we went out and dominated them.”
When the conversation turned to Johnson’s time with the Cowboys, the coach spoke about his rivalry with the Philadelphia Eagles and their former leader.
“Philadelphia beat up on us the first couple years I was in Dallas,” Johnson said. “Buddy Ryan used to say that there were no East Carolina’s in the NFL, which was a shot at me and what he considered to be some of the easy teams we played while I was at Miami. But I fired back a few years later that he never won a playoff game, and I won a couple of Super Bowls.”
At the end of the interview, I asked Johnson about his highly-publicized split from the Cowboys.
“I’ve always been a little bit of a gypsy,” Johnson said. “I get bored easily, and I felt like I had accomplished everything I wanted to there. And the main thing is that I wanted to move to the Florida Keys. I had already bought a home down here. I was ready to move on.”
Following the interview, Johnson invited me to join him for lunch, and the lifelong Yankees fan shared some of his favorite baseball memories over the meal.
“My favorite player was Mickey Mantle,” Johnson said. “I took my oldest son to Kansas City when he was a little kid, and he got to pose for a photo with him. When I was coaching of the Cowboys, I got to meet Mickey again on a golf course. That was a great thrill. You won’t believe this but my second favorite player was Roger Repoz. Back in the ’60s, he was going to be the next Mickey Mantle. I would read the box score every day to find out what he did.”
The entire Art of Sport interview with Johnson will be published in Yankees Magazine this season.
–Alfred Santasiere III
March 7, 2015 – A few days after Media Day (see blog entry below), I interviewed Dellin Betances over dinner at my favorite restaurant in Tampa for the cover story of the April Issue of Yankees Magazine.
Earlier this week, the All-Star relief pitcher and I met up at Bern’s Steak House, a Tampa institution and one of the finest restaurants in North America. With one of the largest wine cellars in the world — featuring more than 6,800 selections and more than a half million bottles — the wine list is as impressive as the dry-aged steaks at the 1956 establishment. To further explain Bern’s place among the great restaurants, it’s worth noting that most United States presidents from the last 50 years have dined there, and Tampa resident and Yankees icon Derek Jeter is a regular.
“I knew this place was impressive, but I had no idea how unique it really is,” the 26-year-old Betances said before ordering a glass of Cabernet from the 178-page award-winning wine list.
Then, the 6-foot-8-inch Betances ordered a 10-ounce filet — which was seven ounces smaller than the 17-ounce porterhouse steak I ordered (see photo below).
“This looks funny,” Betances said. “I’m the biggest guy in this restaurant and I’m eating the smallest steak. But you know what? We’ve got a nutritionist with the Yankees now, and I’m concentrating on eating right.”
Those words epitomized what Betances is all about these days. He’s focused on repeating what he did on the mound in 2014. After spending eight long seasons on a roller-coaster ride through the minors, Betances had incredible success last year. Almost out of no-where, he became one of the league’s most dominant hitters.
In his first full season, he broke Mariano Rivera’s team record for strikeouts by a relief pitcher, finishing the campaign with 135. And of greater significance, Betances’ 1.40 ERA in 90 innings was among the lowest in baseball.
“I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to pitch so well,” Betances said. “I wasn’t surprised by any of it because I believed in myself. I believed I could do the job, regardless of who I was facing.”
My feature chronicles Betances’ journey through the minors, which began after the Yankees drafted him in 2006. The story also delves into just how special Betances’ performance was last season, and how good he can be, regardless of whether he becomes the team’s closer or set-up man this year.
But the most important thing I learned in the evening I spent with Betances at Bern’s Steak House is that one of his greatest characteristics is his humility.
“The closer has a big role, especially with the Yankees,” Betances said a few moments before the end of the dinner. “Whether I get that opportunity or not, I’m going to do my best to help the team win. Like all the bottles of wine in here, I just want to keep getting better with age.”
Enjoy the rest of the story, in the April Issue of Yankees Magazine.
–Alfred Santasiere III
March 7, 2015 – Media Day at the Yankees Spring Training home was held last week, and just like in previous years, our team of photographers captured several portraits that will be published throughout the season.
While I can’t share them all now, below is an image that team photographer James Petrozzello took when Dellin Betances made his way to the Yankees publications station on the field at George M. Steinbrenner Field at about 7:30 am.
This portrait will be published in my feature story on Betances in the April Issue of Yankees Magazine.
–Alfred Santasiere III
March 7, 2015 – A few weeks ago, I attended the 2015 St. John’s University Athletics Hall of Fame ceremony, and I interviewed basketball legend Chris Mullin an hour before he was inducted for an upcoming Art of Sport feature.
Mullin, who was also enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011, was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and remained in the Big Apple to attend St. John’s. Mullin is still the Red Storm’s (although they were the Redmen when he played college ball) all-time leading scorer, and he led the school to its only Final Four appearance.
I asked Mullin about the Johnnies’ 1985 team, which made it to the Final Four.
“When I was playing at St. John’s, just about everyone on the team was from New York,” Mullin said. “The city felt a special connection to that group of guys, because we were from here. The road to the Final Four was stocked with competitive games, and when we got there, we had a great sense of accomplishment.”
Mullin and I also discussed former St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca, who I had the distinct privilege of interviewing for a Yankees Magazine Q&A a few years ago.
“He had the biggest influence on my life,” Mullin said. “To this day, we speak often, and there’s not a day that goes by in which I don’t think about something he taught me. The way he taught basketball is the way he lives his life. He taught his players about being unselfish, to work with their teammates, to be gracious and humble when you win and to accept defeat when you lose.”
At the end of the interview, Mullin shared his feelings about returning to St. John’s for the Hall of Fame induction.
“It’s special, because I made so many lifelong friends at St. John’s,” said Mullin, who played in the NBA for 16 seasons and finished his professional career with 17,911 points. “I may have only spent four years here, but in my heart, the people I got to know on this campus are always with me.”
The full Art of Sport interview with Mullin will be in published in an issue of Yankees Magazine later this year.
–Alfred Santasiere III
February 17, 2015 — The New York Yankees 2015 Official Spring Training Program will be available at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida, beginning on March 4.
On that afternoon, the team is scheduled to play its first home game of the spring and it’s first game in the post-Derek Jeter era.
After a 20-year legendary career in pinstripes, the captain will still have a presence in this publication. We’ve put together a photo essay with some of our best images of Jeter from Spring Training throughout his tenure in pinstripes.
The program also includes contributing writer Bryan Hoch’s feature on all the new faces on the Yankees’ 2015 roster, as well as our annual Spring Training capsule.
This spring marks George M. Steinbrenner Field’s 20th season and in a special feature, contributing writer Bob Andelman takes a look back at the planning and construction that went into the beautiful ballpark formerly known as Legends Field. Additionally, contributing writer Jack O’Connell penned a story on the Yankees’ former spring home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Enjoy the New York Yankees 2015 Official Spring Training Program, and have fun at George M. Steinbrenner Field.
–Alfred Santasiere III
February 17, 2015 – The Spring Issue of Yankees Magazine will be on sale on March 2.
Even though the Yankees’ 2015 season has yet to begin, the latest edition of Yankees Magazine will be available at Yankee Stadium and on newsstands throughout the Tri-State area.
You can purchase a subscription to the print version of Yankees Magazine by calling (800) GO-YANKS, and you can purchase a print or digital subscription by visiting http://www.yankees.com/publications.
In addition to my feature on Joe Pepitone (see blog entry below), the Spring Edition will include managing editor Nathan Maciborski’s cover story on Chase Headley.
Maciborski conducted a 45-minute, one-on-one interview with Headley — who signed a long-term contract with the Yankees this offseason — and he provides an in-depth look at the third baseman. The story delves into the 30-year-old’s background and the whirlwind 10 weeks he spent in pinstripes last season.
There’s a lot more in this issue, including my inspiring Art of Sport interview with Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, who recently shared the news that he is cancer free with his fans — after his second battle with the disease. My Art of Sport interviews with fellow Buffalo Bills legends and Hall of Famers Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed are also on the pages of this edition.
Lastly, our annual spring training capsule, a feature on Babe Ruth’s influence on one of New York’s legendary columnists and a Kids Corner article on Yankees assistant general manager Jean Afterman are also part of the Spring Issue of Yankees Magazine.
–Alfred Santasiere III
February 17, 2014 – On a frigid day in late January, I spent several hours with former Yankees first baseman Joe Pepitone in the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood he grew up in. My feature on the loveable Pepitone, whose life story can be described as a roller-coaster ride, will be published in the Spring Issue of Yankees Magazine.
For Pepitone, who was called up to the big leagues in 1962 and was selected to three All-Star games during his eight-year tenure in pinstripes, the trip back to the Prospect Heights was his first in 50 years.
“I have no idea why I haven’t been back,” Pepitone said. “I remember all of the sights and smells like I had been here yesterday.”
I met Pepitone at a Brooklyn bakery for breakfast, and we then walked across Vanderbilt Avenue to the 74-year-old’s elementary school — which is now an apartment building.
From there, we walked along Vanderbilt Avenue for about five blocks until we got to St. Marks Avenue. We turned right onto St. Marks and walked to the old brick building that Pepitone grew up in (see photo with me below).
When we got to his old apartment building, Pepitone walked out to a manhole cover in the middle of the street.
“I started playing stickball out here when I was 4-years-old,” Pepitone said. “We played every day in the summer from morning until it got dark. We actually had teams. We practiced during the week and played games on the weekends. People would be out on their fire escapes watching us play, and they would send down money in baskets to bet on the game.”
As Yankees team photographer James Petrozzello snapped photos of Pepitone in the street, the former Yankee shared one of his favorite childhood memories.
“My grandfather, who lived next door to me, always had three or four brooms down in his basement,” Pepitone said. “I’d go down there and take the broomstick off the bottom of the broom, and that was our bat.”
Moments later, Pepitone returned to his mischievous ways.
“I’ll find the perfect broomstick,” Pepitone said as we walked up the front stairs of a nearby residence and grabbed an old and weathered broom.”
Then, without hesitation, Pepitone put his right foot on the area where the broomstick met the bristles, and he snapped off the stick.
Just like that, the old stickball legend had a bat, and I had the best anecdote of the day (see photo below).
There’s a lot more on Pepitone’s life — on and off the diamond — in my feature. After we left the street he grew up on, we ventured to an Italian restaurant a few miles away. There, Pepitone shared his experiences in the minor leagues and with the Yankees, including some great stories about his close friend Mickey Mantle.
Enjoy this exclusive feature on a very interesting Yankee.
–Alfred Santasiere III
February 17, 2015 – A few weeks before I interviewed Buffalo Bills legend Thurman Thomas in Orchard Park, New York, I spent some time with his longtime teammate, Andre Reed, in Long Island.
I interviewed Reed at the Joe Namath March of Dimes Celebrity Golf Classic in September for one of three Art of Sport features that will be published in the Spring Issue of Yankees Magazine. The other Q&A pieces that will run in that issue are with Thomas and former quarterback Jim Kelly.
In my conversation with Reed, the newly inducted Pro Football Hall of Famer spoke about the thrill of finally getting into Canton — after nearly a decade-long wait.
“There’s no doubt that the wait made it sweeter,” Reed said. “Getting into the Hall of Fame was on my mind for a long time, and there was time when I wondered if it would ever happen. If it happened six or seven years ago, it wouldn’t have been as great because I wouldn’t have appreciated how difficult it is to get in. But most importantly, when you’re a Hall of Famer, you’re a Hall of Famer forever, so it doesn’t matter how long it took for it to happen.”
Reed also shared his thoughts with me on Kelly.
“He was the leader of our team,” Reed said. “He was as tough as nails and the greatest competitor I’ve ever been around. We didn’t always agree on everything, but we knew that we could always be honest with each other and that made us better. Without Jim, I would not be in the Hall of Fame. Off the field, I feel like I’m part of his family, and he’s part of mine.”
Don’t miss the rest of this piece, on the pages of the Spring Edition of Yankees Magazine.
–Alfred Santasiere III
December 24, 2014 – The 2014 New Era Pinstripe Bowl will be played on December 28 at Yankees Stadium, and in my opinion, this year’s game program is the best one yet.
If you’re going to be at the game, you can pick up your copy at the Stadium. The official game program is also be available on www.yankees.com/publications and by calling (800) GO-YANKS.
Thanks to the tremendous efforts of managing editor Nathan Maciborski and the rest of the Yankees editorial staff, this publication if filled with all of the information fans could ever want about Penn State University’s football program and Boston College’s team. The official game program also includes features about the title sponsor of the bowl, college football at the old Yankee Stadium and the current Yankee Stadium and a few guys who played in the New York City’s bowl game in recent years.
My favorite feature in the publication details some of the greatest games in college football history, which took place between teams that are now in the ACC and the Big 10 — the two conferences that are represented in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. As senior editor Jon Schwartz noted in the feature, many of the teams that participated in these games were not in their current-day conferences when these epic battles took place, but they are now.
In addition to scribing that story, Schwartz also put together a Q&A piece with the 2013 New Era Pinstripe Bowl MVP, Zack Martin. The offensive tackle from Notre Dame was picked in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys, and he has been a standout from the first day of training camp.
A little closer to home, I traveled to the New York Giants practice facility in East Rutherford, New Jersey, for a conversation with Justin Pugh. The former Syracuse University left tackle played a big role in his team’s victories in the Inaugural New Era Pinstripe Bowl in 2010 and in SU’s win in the 2012 game.
In the interview, I asked Pugh, who has been the Giants’ starting right tackle since he was selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, about the thrill of playing in what was the first college bowl game in New York City in several decades.
“There definitely was pressure on us because we’re New York’s college team,” Pugh said. “Also, [then Syracuse head coach] Coach Marrone is from the Bronx, and we really wanted to win it for him. When you’re playing a team from Kansas in New York, you feel like you really have to represent New York. We felt like it was our duty to defend our home turf.”
Pugh also discussed his team’s 369-yard rushing performance in the 2012 game against West Virginia University.
“We had a running back who ran more than 200 yards and another one who ran for more than 150,” Pugh said. “Playing that game in the snow and watching our fans throwing the snow into the air was a lot of fun. That will always be one of my favorite memories of playing football.”
At the end of the interview, I asked Pugh a few questions about his first two seasons with Big Blue, and he spoke about the Giants’ first win last season. As I wrote about in the 2014 New York Yankees Official Yearbook, Mariano Rivera took the field and served as the Giants’ honorary captain for that game. (see previous blog entry below).
“Having the greatest closer of any era there to support us was a great motivation,” Pugh said. “He’s a calm, quiet guy who always went to the mound and got it done, and that was the kind of mentality that we needed that night.”
I also wrote a long feature on the fascinating history and culture of New Era, a fourth-generation family-owned company that began in Western, New York, in 1920, has remained there ever since.
During the day I spent at New Era’s headquarters in downtown Buffalo, New York, I interviewed owner and CEO Chris Koch, whose great grandfather founded the company nearly 100 years ago.
New Era has grown exponentially over the last few decades, and it’s one of the largest sports apparel companies in the world today, producing more than 50 million hats a year.
What impressed me most during the time I spent with Koch and other executives, including president Peter Augustine, wasn’t the magnitude of New Era’s hat production or the creative designs, but instead, it was the way the atmosphere within the building.
Koch knows everyone who works in the four-story Buffalo office, and he is just about as concerned with maintaining New Era’s family culture as he is with the growth of the company.
“As you grow bigger, you try to figure out how you can continue to have the culture of family and caring,” Koch said from his third-floor office that overlooks the city on the banks of Lake Erie. “We’re always striving to make sure that people here understand the history behind where we came from. Out of our 95 years, we’ve only been an international corporation for about the last 15. Our foundation is the family atmosphere, and it’s vital to our success that we maintain that.”
As far as moving New Era’s hub to bigger city, the Buffalo native, who has worked for New Era since he was a teenager, wouldn’t even dream of it.
“It’s important to the city of Buffalo to have a global company headquartered in Buffalo,” Koch said. “Our 15 satellite offices throughout the world help us understand the market in those regions, but we still have a sense of Western New York in everything we do. That’s very important to me.”
In New Era, the Yankees certainly have a classy partner.
–Alfred Santasiere III