From jail, Spira 'sickened' by Steinbrenner's return to power

March 03, 1993|By Bob Klapisch DTC | Bob Klapisch DTC,New York Daily News

It was 12:01 a.m. Monday, and a small radio inside the federal prison in North Carolina was tuned to WFAN in New York. As George Steinbrenner went on the air to celebrate his return as owner of the New York Yankees, Howie Spira, inmate 33046054, listened to the man who put him in jail and said, "It made me sick."

This is Day 450 of Spira's prison sentence for extortion. If he behaves, Spira will be free in 343 more, on Feb. 11, 1994. The days are slow and monotonous but not dangerous for Spira, who works in the cafeteria serving food. The inmates don't bother this tortured young man, who watches TV, listens to the radio, lifts weights and spends every solitary moment thinking of ways to make Steinbrenner feel his rage.

"I'm ready to take a lie-detector test. If I lose, if it shows I'm lying about Steinbrenner, then I will volunteer to spend another 10 years in jail," Spira said yesterday in a 45-minute telephone conversation. "If George loses, then he has to give up the Yankees. Is he man enough to do it? Does he think Yankee fans deserve to know the truth or not?"

It is a war Spira cannot win -- not from the Federal Correctional Institute in Butner, N.C., and not as a civilian next year. But that doesn't mean Spira will ever stop trying. He is still obsessed with George, more convinced than ever that "I've spent 449 wrongful days in jail. I want to get on with my life in a peaceful way, but not until there's some justice done.

"I'm an eight-count felon. How am I ever going to get a job when I get out of here? I don't think Bill Clinton is about to issue me a pardon. I'm the one who's going to carry the excess baggage the rest of my life, and I want people to know George Steinbrenner is a sick, boldfaced liar."

Thus, Spira's plan: He wants the chance to ask 20 questions of The Boss with the aid of a lie detector. Spira will submit to whatever 20 queries Steinbrenner has, and is willing to let baseball's executive council, the Federal Bureau of Corrections or any agency Steinbrenner chooses administer the test.

When I told Spira he had no hope of ever getting Steinbrenner to agree, Spira said, "How about public pressure? What if the fans demand it?"

There will be no such demand, of course. The Yankees are about to come close to the top of the AL East and now most fans regard Spira as nothing more than a chirping jailbird. Dave Winfield and the $40,000 slush fund started evaporating the moment Spira was led away in handcuffs in December 1991.

Besides, all Steinbrenner has to do is remind us that he, too, has suffered, separated from his Yankees for 2 1/2 years because he was suspended by then-commissioner Fay Vincent for consorting with Spira to gain information about Winfield.

But Spira scoffs and says, "He's been living in a mansion. I'm in a jail."

He has been in four federal prisons in 15 months -- from Texas to Virginia to West Virginia to North Carolina. Actually, Spira admits it's not a bad life: He doesn't live in a cell, but in a dormitory-type setting where "the food here is actually pretty good." The inmates all do their time quietly and two weightlifters in the gym have helped Spira bulk up.

Still, Spira hasn't made any friends, nor does he welcome outsiders. Not even his family has been allowed to see him, because in Spira's words, "this is my time. I'm going to do it alone. I told my mother, 'I don't want you to have to see me.' " The days are spent "in a trance, putting your mind somewhere else so the time goes a little quicker."

Even so, Spira couldn't help but turn on ESPN in the TV lounge Sunday night at 11:30 as the Steinbrenner countdown began. And when WFAN trumpeted The Boss' return, Spira said, "it really was enough to make me sick. I mean, it was like they were counting down for New Year's Eve. Worse, it was like the second coming . . . it was ridiculous."

The phone line fills with wild accusations and conspiracy theories: Spira is still convinced the prosecution was bribed $500,000 by Steinbrenner to put him in jail. Spira says Steinbrenner is linked to the Kennedys, the mob . . . it goes on. Yet Spira is so lucid he swears he can document -- to the word, to the inflection of the word -- every conversation he ever had with Steinbrenner, even the time Spira claims the Boss said, "The only mistake Hitler ever made was not killing your father in the concentration camps so I wouldn't have had to deal with you."

Says Spira: "George knew members of my family had been killed in concentration camps. He made anti-Semitic remarks that would've made Marge Schott look like a Girl Scout."

Spira has plans for a book, a movie and a $300 million lawsuit he swears will be financed by "people who've volunteered to help me get the truth out."

But there are another 343 days to go before he can take Steinbrenner to court. Until then, Spira waits and obsesses, a fatal attraction George Steinbrenner will never escape.

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