Which brings us back, finally, to the embarrassing client Rubenstein can't get away from. Yankees memorabilia is all around Rubenstein's office, and he wears a huge team-championship ring, just like a player. Rubenstein won't say much about his work for the Yankees' owner, whose ability to attract attention and talent to the Yankees is almost matched by his talent for putting his foot in his mouth. "I don't think I've ever discussed my strategy or Steinbrenner's strategy," Rubenstein says. "I just execute for George. George is his own man. Clearly. You ask anybody. Steinbrenner sets his own policies. Rubenstein is his spokesman. I am not his business adviser!" He laughs loudly. "They're their own persons, all of the highly successful people that I work for."
"Do they listen to you?" I ask.
"Sometimes yes, sometimes no," he says twice.
"Do you ever say no to them?"
"You bet. I'm not fearful of giving them a straight answer. I am not a yes man. And that's why I think George likes me and trusts me."
"But he might disregard your advice?"
"Yes," Rubenstein answers. "We have a discussion, and then I say what he wants me to say."
On November 4, the Boss wanted him to say why the Yankees hadn't exercised their 1999 option on Darryl Strawberry, who'd just had surgery for colon cancer. Mike Lupica, the Daily News sports columnist, had taken off on Steinbrenner for not giving the ailing slugger his $2.5 million. The Boss wanted it known that Strawberry owed so much in back taxes and alimony that his creditors would take anything the Yankees paid him -- and not only that, Major League Baseball would hit the Yankees with a "luxury" surcharge if Strawberry got all that green. The Boss wanted to work things out for everyone's profit. And he obviously didn't want to say that to Lupica, who has a history of insufficient reverence toward him.
So the next day, Rubenstein called the Daily News and asked for Debby Krenek, the editor. "He said he had information about Darryl Strawberry that was hot," she recalls. So she sent him where he should have gone in the first place, to the sports editor, who put him on the phone with reporter Peter Botte. "I thought they'd say, 'He'll take care of Strawberry,' '' Botte says. Instead, he got an earful about Strawberry's debts -- which Rubenstein vastly inflated. "I asked him, 'Is this on the record?' " Botte continues. "He said, 'Yeah.' " A few minutes later, Lupica got a full report. But he and Botte thought the call so peculiar that Botte called back to be sure it had really been Rubenstein. The next day the News ran three pages of coverage, with stories by Botte and Lupica, a back-page photo of Steinbrenner, and the headline a new low. Good publicity.
Now, Rubenstein says the incident was "unfairly reported," but admits, "Perhaps I was not as articulate as I should have been. Certainly I wasn't consciously hurtful. It's possible I was clumsy. But I would imagine if you asked the Daily News on balance whether I'm skilled or not, they would think I'm skilled. They can't say I'm a jerk."
Actually, Mike Lupica says worse, even if an acknowledgment is buried in his criticism. "It's astonishing that such a big guy in New York, a guy who's supposed to be so scary, could do something that monumentally stupid," Lupica says. "It's like in sports. Look at the field. You don't need anybody to tell you when a pitcher has lost his fastball."