Championship hearts: In court and on the field
July 28, 2011

TAMPA, Fla. -- If the Tampa Bay Rays have any lingering hope of reaching the post-season, they're going to have to find a way to catch the New York Yankees in the wild-card race. It's a long shot given the losses that keep mounting and the sizable gap that separates them from their pinstriped rivals in the AL East.

But to pull it off, they'll ultimately have to take a page -- or about 280 pages to be exact -- out of Steve Yerrid's book, The Making of A Championship Heart.

It is a rare and revealing book, in fact, about the Yankees themselves.

Yerrid isn't a baseball scribe by profession, and his name won't typically be found amid the sports pages, whether in newsprint or the cyberspace variety. But he's made a championship name of his own beyond any big-league field of dreams -- as a big-time winner in the field of law.

Regarded as one of the nation's top trial litigators, winning landmark, multi-million-dollar verdicts for his clients the way Cy Young caliber pitchers rack up "Ws" year in and out, Yerrid has delivered a baseball work that no one else could have pulled off.

For one thing, no one else had the unparalleled access granted by the Boss himself, fostered by a mutual respect and trust that grew through the decades.

A close friend of the late George Steinbrenner and his family, the 60-year-old Tampa attorney was allowed inside the world of the Yankees by the Steinbrenners -- including George and Joan, and their four children Hank, Jennifer, Jessica and Hal -- during the team's world championship season of 2009.

The result is Championship Heart -- on one level, a tribute to Steinbrenner, his commitment to excellence and his charitable nature that he preferred to keep out of the public eye.

But on a broader scale, Yerrid's book -- an impressively produced glossy work filled with photos of Yankees from present day through the glory years -- is something more. He uses the ballclub and its legacy of success to explore the many components of a champion, whether in the game of baseball or the game of life.

Yerrid identifies 18 elements in all -- concepts such as desire, preparation, leadership and attitude. And he showcases each with pertinent quotes from the many Yankees he interviewed along with comments from all-time greats, illustrating the words with a mix of lively 2009 photos from the field, bench and clubhouse and classic shots from the past.

"The key is that this is ageless," Yerrid said on a recent day from his spacious law firm office atop of the Bank of America building, overlooking downtown Tampa and beyond. "Because it's not just about a season, or a championship. It's about 100 years of winning tradition. So if you want to put it another way, it's about a lifetime of how to win at life, how to succeed at life."

Yerrid has certainly done that, and with stakes considerably higher than the outcome of a ballgame. He has been at the forefront of many major national cases since the early 1980s -- with framed newspaper accounts filling the walls of a long corridor at his firm.

Most recently, he was in the news for a trial with roots in sports, representing the family of a standout Haitian football player at the University of Central Florida. The player suffered from Sickle Cell trait and died during an off-season conditioning practice. "He was a near 4.0 student, a great athlete, destined for stardom in college sports," Yerrid said.

The veteran attorney was able to prove that the athlete was not properly monitored, in spite of having the condition that causes blood cells to turn sickle-shaped, cutting off oxygen.

"At the first sign of symptoms, you pull the athlete from the exercise -- usually they recuperate and do very, very well," he said. "If the sickeling progresses, the symptoms become more and more severe and ultimately can result in death."

The case unfolded in the same Orlando court building as the Casey Anthony trial. And when it was over, the jury awarded a wrongful death verdict in the amount of $10-million to the parents. Though the university plans an appeal, Yerrid says he welcomes it and that the outcome sends an important message.

"The bottom of line is that I think it will forever change the way big-time college sports look at student-athletes," he said. "Welfare always has to be first -- and winning has to be second."

Yerrid has made an impact on other fronts well. In 1997, he was one of 11 trial lawyers selected by then-Florida Governor Lawton Chiles to represent the state in its ground-breaking suit against the cigarette industry on behalf of Florida taxpayers and children.

The case led to the largest civil settlement of its kind in U.S. history, resulting in vast reduction of cigarette advertising and marketing and ended the practice of targeting youngsters. The tobacco industry wound up having to repay taxpayers billions of dollars.

"The paper's reported $12-billion, it was actually about $17-billion," he said. "But more important, it was a societal change in the way we view cigarette smoking and nicotine addiction. It stopped cold the pandering to children, eliminated Joe Camel, the Marlboro Man, billboards, all those things. And the direct result is a 50 percent reduction in youth smoking."

Yerrid first made his name at age 29 as the attorney who successfully defended ship captain and harbor pilot John Lerro in 1980. Lerro's freighter struck a span of the Skyway Bridge during a torrential storm in May of that year, causing the deaths of 35 people. Against long odds, Yerrid won the case by invoking the "Act of God" defense to sway the jury.

"We had to prove that nothing humanly possible would have changed the outcome of the course of events," he said. "For that one, nobody believed we could win, including my client. But in exonerating him, he never really exonerated himself. I did his eulogy 25 years later, and he went to his grave feeling guilt over what happened."

All told, Yerrid has won more than 175 verdicts of $1-million or more, including a jury award in 2006 of $217-million -- ranking as the largest medical malpractice amount in Florida history -- and won the nation's largest wrongful death verdict: $330-million for a case in 2009.

He sees a fundamental parallel in striving for success in court and on the field.

"You try your best, and you know that for one day, someone's best will be enough -- it may just be that on that one day, it wasn't enough for you," he said.

"You'd be amazed at how many athletes I interviewed have that same philosophy. As a trial lawyer, I can't accept defeat. It's just really unacceptable, and thank God I don't lose very often. But on those rare occasions when I have lost, it's been tolerable because I know I've tried my best. I can't accept defeat but I can tolerate it because I know I've done my best and know I couldn't have tried any harder. That's enough. That's all I've got."

In the end, the difference Yerrid says the difference between being great or good comes down to the effort expended during the battle, whether on the playing field or in the courtroom.

"Greatness means all-out exertion and effort; it means that when every fiber inside you is telling you to quit, you keep going," he said. "That, to me, defines greatness. That is the biggest measure between first and second place.

"I also don't subscribe to the notion that the winning effort is on the scoreboard. I used to believe that meant everything. And now I don't think it does. I don't even think Vince Lombardi has been interpreted correctly when he said, 'Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing.' I think what he really meant was the winning effort is the only thing, He never asked for anything he didn't give himself, which was his best effort. You can't ask anymore from an athlete, a lawyer, a client or anyone. Give me the best you've got, and if that really happens, then it's a championship effort."

Yerrid was born in West Virginia amid modest means. His mother was a secretary, his father a printer who worked in the press room of the Washington Post and later in the nightclub business. The club work put a strain on the marriage and finally ended it, and his mother sacrificed to give her son a strong foundation.

"She supported me and was my main fan for many years, making only $300 a month," he said. "Eventually, my dad went back to printing and we re-established our relationship after several years. I'm glad about that. He died at 58, and I still miss him."

His father did live long enough to see his son graduate from Georgetown University law school, and embark on his sky-rocketing law career soon after.

Around the same time, Yerrid first met Steinbrenner. He'd been sent to Tampa by the senior partner of a law firm that represented major corporations, such as the Tropicana juice company and the head of the American Shipbuilding Company and New York Yankees empire, George M. Steinbrenner.

Yerrid writes in his book about the "defining moment" -- when he sat at a long conference table with other attorneys, advisors and staff members. The Boss, seated at one end, went around the table asking everyone's input. But when one lawyer took on a semi-lecturing tone, Steinbrenner cut him off in a tirade, shouting, "I did not fly you down here to have you lecture me or tell me what I have to do!"

In the silence that followed, Yerrid made a risky decision -- and asked to see Steinbrenner outside the room. He recollects the exchange in this passage: "Mr. Steinbrenner, I realize who you are and understand we just met, but if you get around the table to me, I can't allow you to talk to me that way or we are going to have a problem."

Steinbrenner looked furious, and Yerrid braced for a tirade. But in that moment, the Boss' demeanor changed. He liked that someone had the courage to speak to him in a straight-forward fashion, and asked Yerrid. "What are you? You some kind of hotshot?"

Then he smiled, slapped the young attorney on the back and told Yerrid he respected what he had done -- in being unafraid to speak his mind. They re-entered the meeting with a friendship that took root that day and flourished through the years to come -- with Steinbrenner's nickname for his pal sticking, too: "Hotshot."

When Yerrid mentioned his idea for a book on the Yankees -- using past and present players to define the traits of a champion in any pursuit -- Steinbrenner immediately gave his blessing. And when Steinbrenner died in July 2010, Yerrid was helped and encouraged by the children: Hal (Managing General Partner), Hank (General Partner), Jennifer (General Partner) and Jessica (General Partner).

"George embraced it -- the whole Yankee organization supported it," Yerrid said. "It's been a real team effort. I've learned that people like me can succeed, but only with the help of others. I've never succeeded on anything I've ever done by myself. I've failed by myself numerous times, but to succeed, I've always found others had to help me -- and others should get credit."

He received plenty of help with his project, especially from past greats like Yogi Berra, Don Larsen, Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry and many more. He didn't write the book for money -- he's earned plenty of that from his day job. The fact is, he donates the proceeds to his ongoing support of children battling cancer -- a cause he additionally supports each October with the Yerrid Foundation Grand Slam Celebrity Fishing Tournament.

Yerrid's chief motivation was to identify the core characteristics shared by champions in all walks of life -- and his book gets right to the heart of it.