The Bronx AmbassadorOctober 12, 2012
On the last day of his junior year of high school, in 1973, Ray Negron put on a button-down shirt, so his mother wouldn’t suspect that he was skipping class, and rode the subway to Yankee Stadium. He took the shirt off, bought a burger at McDonald’s, and started spray-painting buildings with a few friends. “What you waiting for?” one of them asked. “Tag the goddam stadium.” Negron took a can of white paint, walked up to a wall on the third-base line, and traced an “N” and a “Y.” Before he could finish, a man in a blue blazer approached, with, as Negron later described it, a face “red with a rage I hadn’t seen since my mother was about to whip my ass after she caught me taking quarters from my father’s pants pockets.” The man grabbed Negron by the scruff of his neck and said, “Kid, don’t you know who I am?”
The man was George Steinbrenner, and the kid is now fifty-six years old, having spent much of the past four decades in the employ of the New York Yankees. Rather than have him arrested, Steinbrenner put Negron to work to pay for the damages: as a clubhouse assistant, batboy, Reggie Jackson’s gofer, babysitter for Bobby Bonds’s son, Barry, and, for part of one season, the team’s batting-practice pitcher. That job ended when Billy Martin told him, “You can’t throw batting practice. In fact, you’re horseshit,” and Steinbrenner added, “If Billy says you’re horseshit, then you’re horseshit.”
Today, Negron is the team’s community adviser, tasked with delivering smiling Yankees to elementary schools and hospital wards. “It’s difficult to get the right player,” Negron said. “I’ve had guys who go in, no smile, and basically whisper in my ear, ‘Hey, when are we getting outta here?’” Management is supportive, within reason. Negron had scheduled a school visit on the season’s penultimate day with Rafael Soriano, the team’s closer, but the Yankees grew nervous as their divisional lead dwindled. “The team is getting on my butt, saying, ‘You gotta be careful. It’s getting too close. We got the Red Sox coming in that day,’ ” Negron said, mentioning a threat that was once ominous. (The Red Sox finished last in the American League East.) “Once we get into the postseason, I leave the guys alone,” he said. “The Boss used to say, ‘Get ’em to the playoffs, and leave ’em alone.’ I’m still following his orders.”
Negron rescheduled the event, and late last month he escorted Soriano into St. Raymond’s School, in the Bronx, wearing a brown suede jacket and his 1996 World Series ring. The Yankees are more remote than they were in the seventies—it’s hard to imagine a story like Negron’s happening today—and he sees his job as a humanizing one. In an effort to show the Yankees’ tender side, he has written several books, including a trilogy for children about a batboy named Ray, which has been turned into an upcoming animated film voiced by a number of Yankees, including Yogi Berra and Alex Rodriguez. “Yogi took thirty-seven takes,” Negron said. “Alex just wanted to go in, do his thing, and get out of there. We had to bring him back and put a little life in him.”
At St. Raymond’s, Soriano was wearing a pin-striped suit, and he kept his sunglasses on inside the dim auditorium. Soriano had replaced the stoic Mariano Rivera as the team’s closer this season and irks more traditional fans by ripping his shirttails out of his waist indecorously after a successful save. “Fans see the persona on TV, and they think he’s an asshole,” Negron said, noting that Soriano was actually one of his more enthusiastic volunteers. Negron translated for Soriano onstage, and encouraged the children to stay in school, without mentioning the fact that he had got his job with the Yankees by doing the opposite. One eighth grader in the second row, after hearing Negron’s story, said that the plan sounded like a good one but offered a simpler strategy: “I would spray-paint, ‘Hey, give me a job.’ ”
The principal of St. Raymond’s offered a prayer—“And P.S., God, we pray that the Yankees go to the Series”—and, outside the auditorium, a priest blessed a copy of his latest book, “Yankee Miracles,” a collection of stories from his time with the team, which he co-wrote with Sally Cook. It’s meant for adults, but Negron feels a debt of gratitude to Steinbrenner, so it is light on overtly adult content. “The book that everyone wanted could have been my pension,” Negron said, of the temptation to spill his significant well of clubhouse gossip. “But someday I gotta see George Steinbrenner again, and when I see him I gotta be able to hug him,” he said. “If I ever did anything like that—if you know the Boss, he ain’t hugging me.”
Photograph courtesy Ray Negron.