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Inside Man: A Bronx Tale (Part Four)
2008-01-17 10:25
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

Soul Survivor

  

 

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?"

"Yes."

"Huh?"

"Yes."

"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.
Click Here for: Parts One, Two and Three.
Comments
2008-01-18 06:27:42
1.   Alex Belth
I hope you enjoyed the story on Ray. He's some character. Although this version of the story is long (which is why I posted it in installments), it is drastically shorter than my original. And there was some cherce material left on the cutting room floor so to speak. With that in mind, here are some of my favorite out-takes that didn't make the final cut.

Here is Ray talking about his relationship with Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson:

Ray: "Billy would say, 'You're a fucking genius. Every time Reggie asks you to do something, you don't wait for Thurman to ask him.' I ne-ver waited for him to ask. I always had Thurman in check. I understood the aspect of him being left alone when it came to the media and stuff like that. Thurman was very straight and very direct. 'Thurman, would you sign the ball?' 'No.' And that was it. You understand what I'm saying? With Thurman, 'yes' was 'yes' and 'no' was 'no'. But Thurman was a very giving guy. He was a very good person. Remember at one point, Thurman had an afro. And he groomed his afro after my afro cause I had an afro in those days. So I would have to tell him how I did it how I curled it, what stuff I put in my hair."

Here is Ray on Billy Martin:

"Billy opened a cowboy store [selling hats, fashion, etc.] on 73rd, across the street from the hotel he used to stay out, the Westbury Hotel. Billy says, 'What are you doing all winter?' I said, 'I'm going to be working for Reggie." "Well, why don't you do some work for me too? You can do some inventory, I'll be there, we can hang out a little bit."

Ray held the job for a week but Billy never showed. So Ray quit.

Ray: "The manager Doug calls Billy at the hotel, Billy comes down and says to me, "C'mon, lets go get something to eat." And that was the end of that job. So we go to the midtown restaurant Patsies, somewhere in midtown, and out of the blue, there's Sinatra, Sammy and some of his people.

"One of the years I took like five of the players, including Winfield, to meet Sammy at his hotel. And I loved it, you know why I loved it is because it's like, whoah, how the fuck do you know Sammy Davis, Jr? You know what I mean? So, it was sweet.

"...So, we are at Patsies, and I saw Billy humbled. I saw that he looked up to Sinatra per se and Billy I didn't see looking up to anybody. Because to Billy, HE was the fucking guy. That's what I loved about Billy. You know what? If we were to walk down a dark alley, I'd walk with Billy cause I would feel that Billy would know how to take care of himself. That's just a reaction. I saw Billy in action several times. He always used to say to me, 'If you think you are in a fight situation, don't wait for the motherfucker to throw the first blow at you just go at him, fuck it. Explain later.'"

Ray laughs. "He was a total street guy. And you knew when he was mad. He gave you that look and you said, 'Oh, motherfucker.'"

Here is Ray elaborating on acting stint:

"I lived in L.A. for a year and then came back cause I was not going to be a big actor. I tested for Miami Vice. Originally the Tubbs character was Latino. A producer I knew from commercials set it up for me on a silver platter. She was telling me, 'This is going to change your life, this is going to be great.' When I did the reading with Don Johnson, who was just out of rehab, I couldn't remember a line. It was one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life. I completely froze. But it was the experience of trying. Like I tell everybody, 'If you want to do something, try, try. And never be afraid of 'No.' I also tested for the Spanish boyfriend in Easy Money which I desperately wanted to get because I worshipped Rodney Dangerfield. But I had gotten an offer to work for the Giants in Japan, to help American players get acclimated to the culture, take care of a lot of little stuff here and there, and so I went out there for an interview. Meanwhile, they offered the part for Easy Money but this was before e-mail and I didn't get the message until I got home and by that time they had cast someone else."

Finally, my favorite image of Ray, a small, but telling moment, came at a banquet a few years ago. Randy Levine and Reggie and Ray were being honored. The presentation began with a video about restoring the Bronx, backed by the theme from Rocky.

"...The video presentation ends with 'The Comeback Continues' written on the screen. The panel is introduced, and the Rocky theme reaches a crescendo. First Randy Levine walks down the center of the room, and then, the star attraction, Reggie Jackson, follows, trailed by Negron. Jackson receives the biggest round of applause. He starts down the left side of the open space in the middle of the room. Negron follows about six paces behind Jackson, down the right side of the room. Intuitively, Negron knows exactly how far back he needs to be. If he waits too long then he'll call to attention to himself at Jackson's expense. If he moves too soon, he risks cutting off Jackson's applause. Instead, Negron glides across the room as Jackson's shadow, there, but not there at all."

That is Ray. Able to be there but not there. Takes a certain disposition and a certain kind of talent to be able to do that.

2008-01-18 06:46:38
2.   Sliced Bread
Man, that's showbiz, Alex. Some Yankeeography.

The Klapisch insights, and Ray's self-analysis at the end really sharpen the portrait. Beautiful stuff. Thanks.

2008-01-18 07:02:20
3.   Shaun P
1 Thanks for the "director's extras", Alex. The fan in me wishes you hadn't cut anything out, but the writer in me knows better. C'est la vie.

Any chance you'll give us an update on how Ray is doing during the season?

2008-01-18 07:12:22
4.   ms october
Thanks Alex - I really loved this.
You really spent an extended period of time with him - which made the profile very complete.
2 Yes Klapsich's insights and Ray's reflections really did sharpen things.
3 Yes it would be nice to "keep up" with Ray - especially if he gets his desk.
2008-01-18 07:57:31
5.   pistolpete
Thanks, Alex - great piece all-around. I'd heard Ray's name mentioned in different places over the years, but I never knew the depth of his involvement with the organization.

Not sure why, with the billions of dollars being thrown around Yankeeland these days, Ray Negron doesn't have a full-time, lucrative position with the team.

One question, though - is Ray as scattered as he seems from your writing? The guy's all over the place with his thoughts...

2008-01-18 08:32:50
6.   Max
Reading this whole series was one of the best parts of my week. Thanks for such a great piece, Alex.
2008-01-18 09:08:42
7.   vockins
Alex, your writing gets better and better. That was great.
2008-01-18 11:17:41
8.   dianagramr
Great ending to a wonderfully-told story.

As an aside, check out the photo at the top. There is a hand coming in from the left side helping George hold up the book. Is The Boss that infirmed that he can't hold up one side of a book for a (seeming) publicity shot? :-(

2008-01-18 11:46:24
9.   JL25and3
I think Negron is the first person I've ever heard - other than one of Billy's running buddies - speak of Billy Martin with such genuine warmth and admiration. Some players loved him as a manager, but Negron - without illusions about what a prick Billy could be - just plain loved him.
2008-01-18 11:51:39
10.   Sonny Mooks
Great writing.

Is Negron still with the yankees today?

I know big George is gone, so I am kind of curious.

2008-01-18 11:54:12
11.   Dimelo
0 Alex, this has been the absolute best thing to read this off-season @ the banter. Great f'ing job....
2008-01-18 13:22:25
12.   Chyll Will
8 Nah, it looks like it was cropped to show The Boss with Ray and his son, sort of a "generations" kinda thing that also lends substance and focus to an already substantial story. I'll bet that's an assistant or a friend of Ray's who's cropped out because had little to do with the narrative... or it could be a player, and Alex didn't have permission to use his face >;)
2008-01-18 13:24:47
13.   Chyll Will
Alex, this has got to be good if it wakes the Lion 11 >;)
2008-01-18 13:39:01
14.   dianagramr
I consider myself a pretty decent writer, and then I read stuff like this 4-parter. I then feel humbled.

I keep remembering one of my favorite scenes from MASH, in the episode "Morale Victory":

from the script ...

(Charles trying to comfort a wounded soldier who before the war was a concert pianist and has now lost the use of three fingers)

Charles: Don't you see? Your hand may be stilled, but your gift cannot be silence if you refuse to let it be.

David Sheridan: Gift? You keep talking about this damn gift. I had a gift, and I exchanged it for some mortar fragments remember?

Charles: Wrong! Because the gift does not lie in your hands. I have hands David, hands that can make a scalpel sing. More than anything in my life, I wanted to play. But I do not have the gift. I can play the notes, but I cannot make the music. You've performed Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin. Even if you never do so again, you've already known a joy that I will never know as long as I live. Because the true gift is in your head, and in your heart, and in your soul. Now you can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share you gift with the world, through the baton, the classroom, the pen. As for these works...they're for you. Because you and the piano will always be as one.

2008-01-18 17:32:15
15.   JL25and3
Alex: I just spent 25 minutes sitting in my car, in the driveway, listening to your interview on XM. Great stuff. You're really on a roll, man.
2008-01-18 20:35:08
16.   LAT
Great story. I really enjoyed it. In 1987 my wife bought a pair of black lizard skin cowboy boots from Billy Martin's store. She still has them although they have been re-soled at least five times and are on thier last legs.
2008-01-18 23:32:03
17.   RIYank
I've been traveling in Sweden for a week and it's sooooo good to stop in and get a big mug full of baseball. Slurrrp. Ah. Yummy internet.

So, has everyone seen Phil's blog?

philhughes.wordpress.com/

Also, over at LoHud, the Yankees' negotiations with Wang, Cano, Bruney, to avoid arbitration. (Player number and team number are quite close for everyone but Cano -- it's a little surprising that the team only offered him $3Mil, don't you think?)

2008-01-21 12:51:35
18.   das411
Great, great writing Alex. Thanks for sharaing it, and the extras.

16 - LAT, who else's legs would you have expected to wear them??

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