NEW YORK -- The Boss finally got some respect.
A jury believed George Steinbrenner's story of extortion and convicted Howard Spira yesterday of attempting to squeeze $110,000 out of the ousted Yankee chief with threats to ruin his reputation.
The verdict was a measure of vindication for Steinbrenner, whose explanation of his relationship with Spira was deemed "not credible" by baseball commissioner Fay Vincent last summer.
On the witness stand, Steinbrenner choked back tears, telling how Spira had placed him and his family in fear through harassment and threats.
Yesterday, the dethroned Boss said from his Tampa shipbuilding office that he was thankful to the people "who believed in me."
After the verdict, Gregory Kehoe, the prosecutor, called Steinbrenner "a very, very powerful witness."
A 32-year-old self-described Bronx gambler, Spira sat expressionless as the verdict was read in Manhattan federal court. But he pleaded for freedom when prosecutors sought to jail him pending sentencing Sept. 19.
"I have no intention of running away," he said, his face flushed and his hands clasped in front of him. "I'm scared right now and I'm confused. I intend to face this like a man."
Manhattan Federal Judge Louis Stanton allowed Spira to remain free on bail.
In addition to the Steinbrenner charges, Spira also was convicted of threatening the life of United Airlines employee Ronald Juris over a bogus lost luggage claim and of attempting to extort money from Houston lawyer Earle Lilly, who represented a woman in a suit against former Yankee Dave Winfield.
Spira faces a maximum sentence of two to five years in prison on each of eight counts, plus thousands of dollars in fines.
The defense had portrayed Spira during the monthlong trial as merely "a pest. . . a mega-nudge. . . a nuisance" whose threats were not to be taken seriously.
But the prosecution, using tapes and letters of Spira's own words, built a case around Spira's threats and demands for $110,000 and a job from Steinbrenner in February 1990 -- a month after Steinbrenner had given him $40,000.
"I will blast him [Steinbrenner] out of the water. . . he will never recover from it, ever," Spira said in one tape.
When Steinbrenner balked, Spira made good on this threat and publicly disclosed their relationship, saying he was paid $40,000 for "dirt" on Winfield.
The money was not part of the charges in this case. It was, however, the focus of Vincent's probe that led to Steinbrenner's removal as managing general partner of the Yankees.
Asked if the guilty verdict vindicated Steinbrenner, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory W. Kehoe said, "I think the verdict shows that the jury believed the government witnesses."
Jurors refused to discuss the case with reporters as they left the courthouse.