Former Yanks' head focuses on Dominican prospects
TAMPA, Fla. (AP)
The man who was once heir apparent to run the New York Yankees stood on the suite level at Steinbrenner Field as employees and friends stopped to shake hands and say hello.
These days, Steve Swindal works with players who hope to become Yankees - or Red Sox or Cardinals or anywhere else in the big leagues.
Married to one of George Steinbrenner's daughters, Swindal was a general partner of the team from 1998-06 and chairman of the Yankees' parent company. Steinbrenner designated him as his successor in June 2005.
Everything changed on Feb. 15, 2007, when Swindal was arrested early in the morning for driving under the influence. His wife, Jennifer, filed for divorce the following month, the Yankees bought out his ownership stake that November and George Steinbrenner turned control of the team over to son Hal Steinbrenner not long after.
''I'm always going be pulling for the Yankees,'' Swindal said. ''That's never going to go away.''
Now 57, Swindal found his way back into baseball. He helped launch a youth academy in the Dominican Republic, one that has had 40 prospects sign with major league organizations. In a land where Major League Baseball has expressed concern about shady buscones - combination trainers/scouts/agents/guardians - Swindal's company has been praised for its treatment of teenage prospects.
''It's a strange turn,'' he said. ''Life is going to be full of turns and changes. It's how you deal with it that's important. I had the best 10 years of my life with the Yankees, of my professional life. I don't regret a minute of it.''
He was at the ballpark Sunday for the Yankees' spring training home opener to watch his daughter, aspiring Broadway actress Haley Steinbrenner Swindal, sing the national anthem. His son works for the Yankees, in stadium operations in New York.
Thinner than in his Yankees days, and with a salt-and-pepper goatee, Swindal stood near the elevators on the suite level, wearing a North Carolina cap, for an interview outside the press box doors. Every two minutes someone stopped to say hello and ask how he was doing.
He formed the company, the International Academy of Professional Baseball, in December 2009 with Abel Guerra, the Yankees' former vice president of international operations; and Hans Hertell, the former U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic. (Hertell was bought out by the other two this year). In exchange for a percentage of any eventual signing bonus, the academy houses, feeds, schools and trains potential players on a complex in Boca Chica that includes a full field and an infield. The company also rents a house in Panama and uses a field across the street, then sends players to the Dominican complex when they are ready. It also employs a scout in Venezuela.
''Some of these students have never gone to schools or dropped out at the third- or fourth-grade level. We try to give them some life skills,'' Guerra said, describing how they attend night school during the week and Dominican schools on the weekend.
Rafael Perez, MLB's director of Dominican operations, calls it ''the nicest academy of any agent,'' saying it's similar to the complex the Yankees had built right across the street. ''And they produce a lot of players.''
And it is a for-profit operation. Swindal says its revenue varies with how many players sign and the percentage his company gets, but it is less than the buscones charge.
''The question is, at the end of the day is it a long-term business?'' said Omar Minaya, San Diego's senior vice president of baseball operations and former general manager of the Montreal Expos and New York Mets. ''I don't know how successful it will be because there's so much competition for players.''
''Baseball is a business in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. It's an attractive business because there's a lot of players. If you're going to take that business, you have a responsibility to educate. You hope that's what they're doing, that it is up to the standards of Major League Baseball,'' he said.
The complex can house 100 players and currently has 40 living there, according to Swindal. Guerra anticipates 17-22 contracts after the signing period starts July 2 - the first since baseball's new collective bargaining agreement imposed restraints on signing bonuses for amateur players.
''Hopefully we'll have a couple guys go for a million dollars this year. We're certainly projecting that. With the new CBA, I don't know how it's going to affect it,'' Swindal said. ''I know the talent is always going to be there, and somehow the clubs are going to find a way to get the talent. The country is just so full of baseball heritage and it just starts from birth with young people. it's getting stronger.''
As Swindal spoke, down on the field the Yankees were scoring runs en route to a 7-4 win over Philadelphia. While none of his homegrown players have made it to the majors yet, Swindal said Jose Iglesias of the Boston Red Sox stopped by for about a month after defecting.
Swindal compares these days with his time with the Yankees, when he saw the Yankees' baseball staff develop Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada from prospects to All-Stars.
''Working with young people was always my passion. I couldn't spend enough time with it with the Yankees,'' he said. ''Seeing them being so successful, you feel like an uncle, pulling for them so hard.''
Like George Steinbrenner, Swindal's background is in boats. He is chairman of Marine Towing of Tampa and in December was reappointed a commissioner of the Tampa Port Authority.
But baseball became his passion. Who knows what would have happened if not for the DUI? At the time, Swindal was in charge of the Yankees because his children were older and he could afford to be away from home.
Perhaps Hal Steinbrenner would have wound up running the team, no matter what.
''I don't really think that particular incident was the underlying reason for me not being there,'' Swindal said. ''A lot of different factors happened, part of a perfect-storm situation.''
With the Yankees winning the World Series in 2009, making the playoffs in each of the last two years and heading toward opening day with a revamped starting rotation, there is optimism. Swindal says he has no reason to complain about the franchise's direction.
''Hal is doing a great job,'' he said. ''He's a smart, smart young man, and I'm proud of him.''