Introducing Hank's Yanks

Hank Steinbrenner providing financial, spiritual support to 18-and-under team
06/07/2010 11:35 AM ET
By Jon Lane /

Nick Swisher greets Hank's Yanks in his own, ebullient way.
(Aris Sakellaridis)
"You find out life's this game of inches. So is football, because in either game - life or football - the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early and you don't quite make it. One half second too slow, too fast and you don't quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They're in every break of the game, every minute, every second.

"On this team we fight for that inch. On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch, because we know when add up all those inches, that's gonna make the difference between winning and losing!"
- Al Pacino's Tony D'Amato: "Any Given Sunday"

Jonathan Smith is an outfielder for Hank's Yanks, an 18-and-under Summer League team participating in Baseball Heaven's tournament held at the Yaphank, N.Y., based complex built for kids with the desire to compete against top-tier talent supported by state of the art facilities. Speaking during a visit to Yankee Stadium on a Wednesday afternoon before the Yankees took on the Baltimore Orioles, Smith described his team as one that "plays with attitude." While his passion for winning and collected composure reflects the character of his team, what you won't know upon first meeting Smith is that he's had to fight for every inch for most of his young life.

At 16 years old Smith is orphaned, having lost both his parents. He could have fell into a deep depression, lost on a hopeless path that led to the temptations of drugs, crime and a void of belonging filled by life in a gang. Instead he chose baseball, made the decision to channel his anger into playing a game during which he fights for those inches, claws to succeed, and win or lose parlays those lessons learned into the next phases of his real life.

"It means to strive to do what you want to do," Smith says of playing with attitude. "You want it more than the next person. It's about inches and if you believe you will succeed.

"You have to focus. If you don't focus on the right thing ... you can take your mind off for a split second and after that, the aftermath is different. (Those who don't hustle) they don't want it. It means they just want their money and walk home."

Thanks to Hank Steinbrenner's benevolence, kids from all walks of life, some from single-parent homes and one, Robert Cruceta, a parent to a two-year-old at the age of 17, Hank's Yanks was created to give these kids a chance to play baseball. The team is funded by the Yankees' co-owner and Yankees players who participated in the upcoming animated film "Henry and Me" with uniforms provided by Spalding. (VIEW PHOTOS OF HANK'S YANKS)

"We have a responsibility to the young people, not only in this city but in all cities," said Hank Steinbrenner. "Even though I'm in Tampa I still want to do the best I can for those kids in New York."

Some of the players live in Freeport, N.Y., a town on the south shore of Long Island often run amok by gangs. In lieu of life on the streets, these kids are taking their aggressions on to the baseball field with positive results. During their visit, they were given a pep talk from Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long.

"Relax, have some fun and enjoy," Long told them. "Watch some of the fellas take some good swings. Pay attention to [Derek] Jeter and watch the way he goes the other way. Watch the way A-Rod smacks it over the fence and watch the pretty swinger [Robinson] Cano."

Inspiration at their fingertips - Yankees manager Joe Girardi and players Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, Cano, Francisco Cervelli, Joba Chamberlain and Marcus Thames were others that said hello - it's up to these kids to use the resources to their advantage. Ray Negron is a Yankees senior advisor and manager of Hank's Yanks who works closely with Hank Steinbrenner. His approach combines the psychology of Girardi and the hard-nosed, balls-to-the-wall philosophy that made Billy Martin famous as a field pilot.

"We have a responsibility to the young people, not only in this city but in all cities. Even though I'm in Tampa I still want to do the best I can for those kids in New York."
— Hank Steinbrenner

Negron isn't shy about dangling a carrot as further incentive. In August the Yankees will be holding organization tryouts at Yankee Stadium and Negron's players have as good a chance as anyone. If they're good enough, and play hard enough, they will earn an invite. In January the team was provided a small sampling when it traveled to Tampa, Fla., to play at George M. Steinbrenner field before pro scouts.

"We're just trying to do the right thing by them," Negron said. "They're hustling and trying to make it. The youngest player is 14 and the oldest player is 18. The 18-year-olds we're trying to see if they work hard enough they'll be here for the tryouts in August. If they're willing to work we'll do whatever we can for them.

"Hank's Yanks came together to play baseball and represent the Yankees franchise. We're doing it respect and working hard to get to the next level."

Hank's Yanks began play last weekend when during an exhibition tournament they advanced to the finals by winning a doubleheader before losing the championship game. Opening Day was last Thursday and they started the regular season in memorable fashion when Leonel Vinas tossed a no-hitter and struck out 18 in a 5-0 win over the Long Island Giants. Said Hank Steinbrenner, through Negron, after the game, "I'm very proud of my baby Yanks. My big Yanks ain't too bad either."

"Just to hear the name Steinbrenner is great," said Vinas, anointed as one of the team leaders. "He's told us to make the Yankees proud, to play with attitude and be yourself."

Hank Steinbrenner is watching his team very closely too. After every game he calls Negron to ask how they did, and if they lose he wants to know why. Following the exhibition tournament loss, Negron told Steinbrenner the bad news. Steinbrenner responded by kiddingly telling him, "You're fired." During the time George Steinbrenner roared loudest, he fought for every inch, every advantage, to ensure a Yankees victory. If you ask Hank Steinbrenner, the stakes with Hank's Yanks are just as high, if not higher. These kids need a mentor and behind the emotional support of the Yankees they've risen from their personal depths to make a comeback in the most important game, life.

"Hank is supporting them not just financially, but spiritually," Negron said. "The fact that he's stepped up is great. It's another Yankee miracle."

Jon Lane can be reached at Follow Jon's daily Yankees coverage on My YES. comments