NEW YORK YANKEES owner George Steinbrenner has been rooting around, trying to find an answer for why his $200 million-plus ballclub hasn't been able to get out of the way of its own feet. He even went so far as to issue a statement after last Sunday's loss to the Orioles that declaring that he and "all Yankee fans" were "bitterly disappointed" in the team's performance.
If The Boss had bothered to check in with Parkville math teacher Karen Berkley and senior Sean Napfel, he might have gotten a clue.
"We thought the problem was they didn't have any equipment left," Berkley said. "I mean, Sean had Derek [Jeter]'s bat, A-Rod's [Alex Rodriguez's] batting glove and the hats. They had nothing left to play with. We're going to write to George and give him a good report."
Indeed, Napfel, who plays center field for Parkville's Allied softball team, made out like a bandit last Sunday in meeting some of his heroes before the Orioles-Yankees game at Camden Yards.
"It was the greatest time of my life," Napfel said.
To call Napfel a Yankees fan is to commit a serious act of understatement, and the particular object of his admiration is Jeter. On the Allied team, which is made up of kids who don't play interscholastic sports, Napfel is the captain, like Jeter, and has, until this season, worn his No. 2. Napfel said he would be wearing it this year, too, except when the team got new uniforms this year, the number wasn't available in his size.
"I remember telling my dad when he came up at the end of '95, `Dad, this guy's going to be special,' " Napfel said. "Ever since his rookie year, I've loved the way he played the game and his competitive spirit. I knew that he was going to be the face of the Yankees. I love what he stands for and that he thrives in the heat of the moment and the clutch."
Last Sunday's meeting culminated a three-year push by Berkley, a lifelong Yankees fan, to get the 18-year-old to meet Jeter. She had written letters to Jeter and to his charitable foundation, as well as to Steinbrenner. Jeter and Steinbrenner sent letters and some memorabilia, but there was no meeting.
That is, until this year, when Butch German, Parkville's volleyball coach, met Napfel, who has cerebral palsy and is wheelchair-bound. The two connected, and German began using some connections, political and otherwise, to try to arrange to get Napfel to see his idol.
The request reached the Orioles' offices, and when the Orioles visited Yankee Stadium two weeks ago, Bill Stetka, the team's media relations director, approached Rick Cerrone, his New York counterpart, about getting Jeter and German together the next week in Baltimore.
"He is a big Yankees fan and a big Derek Jeter fan," Stetka said of Napfel. "I simply went to the Yankees. We do this a lot with different things. When you can help somebody else out, you do it."
Napfel already had tickets to the game, but Berkley was determined to make things special, without his knowing about it. When Napfel arrived at the Home Plate Plaza entrance at Oriole Park last Sunday, he saw Berkley, who presented him with a box of baseballs "in case you get lucky," she said.
Stetka then arrived and shepherded the group, including Napfel's father, German and Berkley, down the elevator and eventually onto the field. Within a few minutes, Yankees players and coaches began trickling over to meet with Napfel, first center fielder Bernie Williams, then coach Don Mattingly, then others.
Then, while Napfel was distracted, his hero sidled up to him. They shook hands and hugged, and then exchanged banter like they had known each other for years.
"I said, `Hey, Derek, I wanna get back to the World Series,' " Napfel said. "And he's like, `So do I.' I said, `You know what else?' And he was like, `What's that, champ?' I said, `I want a batting title out of you.' He smiled and he said, `Tell Brian Roberts over there to slow down.' "
Jeter went into the batting cage for batting practice but returned 10 minutes later with his bat, which he presented to Napfel. Eventually, Napfel got a fitted hat from right fielder Gary Sheffield and batting gloves from Rodriguez as well as autographs from catcher Jorge Posada, first basemen Tino Martinez and Jason Giambi, and closer Mariano Rivera.
"Obviously, the Yankees went above and beyond, as often happens with a lot of these guys," Stetka said. "One guy stops by, and they see him over there, and more follow. Between the two clubs, hopefully, we made it a special day for him."
As you might expect, Napfel's Parkville classmates were all geared up the next day to give him a raft of grief about the Bronx Bombers' failures last weekend.
But as you might expect, it didn't matter one iota to Sean Napfel.
"They [his schoolmates] ride him unmercifully about the Yankees," Berkley said. "There were a lot of people who were ready to give it to him Monday about the sweep, and he said: `You can't bother me, no matter what you say. Look what I've got.' "