‘Yankee Fans? Right This Way…’

Tampa, Fla., March 4, 2003 — One thing you learn early when coming to Spring Training, the Yankee organization is like an army: They march better on their stomachs. There are a number of restaurants in this area that have baseball connections — the tasty but decidedly mainstream fare at Pete & Shorty’s (think White Castle hamburgers with a liquor license). The first whose hospitality we’ve enjoyed is the original Pete & Shorty’s in Clearwater, where George and Boomer lunched last year before agreeing that Mr. Wells and the Bronx belonged together, and David rejoined the rotation. There is another branch on Dale Mabry in Tampa, right down the street from Legends Field (which we’ve visited also).

We’ve also enjoyed the experience of stumbling upon The Lobster Pot in Redington Shores, where Mr. Torre is a regular visitor. When we dined there a few years ago, we were at a table next to then-Phillies Curt Schilling and Lenny Dykstra, discussing whether or not the career of “Nails” had come to an end. The Tampa Bay area may have as dyfunctional a team as has played the game since the Mets and Casey set up shop in Flushing in ’62, but this area is a hotbed of major league baseball activity. And these baseball people know the best spots to eat.

We had been intrigued with the name of Malio’s since reading the Sports Illustrated article, paraphrased in a St. Petersburg Times article in February 1999, about how the Boomer-for-Clemens deal came down:

    “After a few hours of discussions between Cashman at Legends Field and Yankees front office personnel, who were eating with owner George Steinbrenner at Malio’s, the deal was sealed at 11:42 p.m. ‘I didn’t sleep all night last night,’ Torre said. ‘I knew I was going to have to come in here and talk to Boomer…today.’ ”

So after a long and thrilling (but ultimately unsatisfying) loss to the Jays on Monday, we made the round trip back to the hotel in Clearwater Beach (for a shower and change of clothes) and returned to Dale Mabry (a half-mile further away from Legends than Pete & Shorty’s) in Tampa for an 8:30 reservation at Malio’s. Arriving in an intermittent drizzle, I proudly wore my Yankee cap and windbreaker, a wise choice. On seeing our Yankee gear, we were greeted effusively from the first. The gentleman who guided us to a table in one of several large rooms with semi-private seating, revealed that they loved hosting Yankee fans, even if they were always pestering the staff with questions like: “Wow! Is that a Yankee World Championship Ring you’re wearing?” (Yes, it was — the 1999 one, he beamed.)

We ate a leisurely dinner, sharing a bottle of Merlot over my succulent prime filet mignon (hey, it is a steak place) and Sue’s Veal Oscar. The bruschetta to start with was to die for, the house blue cheese vinaigrette sprinkled on my green salad exquisite, and the baked potato buried in sour cream and butter made even a half-hearted look at the dessert menu pointless, but we gladly lingered over hot steamy coffee (for me) and a glass of port for Sue. In fact, by the time the subject of settling up was broached (a two-digit price tag, at least until the tip, believe it or not), the staff was well along into clearing off, breaking down, and resetting tables and there was no sign of any other paying customers.

Afraid that we were delaying closing, we started to make our way to the door. We were assured that we were not keeping them, and that we could feel free to take our time enjoying the autographed photos and sports memorabilia that covered the walls. Our server regaled us with some great Malio’s tales, including revealing that the eatery would be mentioned in an SI article on Lou Piniella hitting newsstands today. Lou, we learned, went to high school with Tony LaRussa and Malio himself. We also learned that George and Lou vie for top honors as favorite customer, as far as we could tell. Sharing how we were touched by the Tino and Luis Gonzalez boyhood stories, oft-repeated during the 2001 World Series, our server revealed that the gentleman who had walked past our table a few minutes earlier was Tino’s uncle. Then he shared a most embarrassing moment experienced recently by one of the maitre d’s, who learned that Lou would be dining with them shortly after he signed on to coach the Devil Rays. This man wore a Devil Rays polo to greet Lou, only to spy George walking through the door. He thought his efforts to elude being caught had worked, until he heard George muttering as he left: “I can’t believe I’m at Malio’s and he’s wearing a Devil Rays uniform!”

We now really were the only folks in the place except for the smattering of restaurant professionals and college kids part-timing. As we turned to leave, we found ourselves instead in Malio’s “inner sanctum.” First there was the corner booth reserved for George when he’s in town, and the framed photo of a younger Steinbrenner dressed in silks and seated in a sulky, riding his horse to victory. Then we stepped around the corner into a long, narrow, irregularly shaped room, the room where the braintrust sat that day for the fateful 1999 Cashman phone call, and for so many other Yankee discussions. The pictures on the wall of all the Yankee greats were breathtaking, and everything on and around the long tables was first-rate. I pictured spirals of cigar smoke wafting to the ceiling, with the waitstaff attentively poised to satisfy each and every need.

I’ve known since the days of Mickey and Roger that Yankee Baseball was the stuff of dreams. Strolling along Clearwater Beach this morning I mused on how the dreams just keep coming.