The word “Humanitarian” can often be an incredibly lofty word. It gets tacked on the end of 3 or 4 more titles. Almost everyone knows what it means but it’s amorphis, hazy, a throwaway. I’m not going to insult Mr. Negron with a throwaway word you put behind “actor” “author” “celebrity”. The larger issue would be lost. So, let’s start with a literary medium that resonates deeply with the western hemisphere: a story.
During the protests and, at times, riots following the death of George Floyd, Yankees community consultant and special advisor, Ray Negron got a call, a tip about a growing fear that some of the vandalism and chaos that had already landed at the heart of the city would boil over into some sort of righteous indignation against the historical structure that is Yankees stadium. Ray’s play? He called a meeting with a person who was seen, in the eyes of many, as a leader within the BLM movement, Hawk Newsome.
“So when I travel around, I always have two gloves and a ball in the trunk of my car. During the riots, someone told me they would be coming towards yankee stadium. I met with Hawk at the old stadium field. Hawk walked onto the field, and asked ‘ you wanted to have a talk with me?’ and I said ‘yeah, i wanna know if you want to have a catch.’ and he looked at me and he laughed, and we had a catch. We became friendly and we were able to talk. I brought him to meet our team president, Randy Levine, and Randy has a way of talking to people and we were able to come to peace with the group and with Hawk so there would be no issues around the stadium.”
The tenor of this encounter may seem off-kilter, but Ray perceived something underlying the frustrations and proneness to criminality in a city reeling from televised violence and roiled nerves, no matter how justified: a lack of connection. A simple conversation wouldn’t do. One lone outreach program to protect Yankees stadium is too slow and stilted; and without context, it just looks like some God king rich investor trying to avoid damages. None of these would fit Ray’s style anyway. Instead, he chose a common denominator –something that brings two people back into the present moment. “In any scenario I go to, I always keep two gloves and a ball with me. If there’s an issue, I get the gloves and ball out…I’m telling you, it’s a miracle cure. A lot of the issues around the city all stem from these kids growing up angry. Angry because of our own issues with our own parents. We grow up without fathers, mothers…I had a wonderful stepfather who adopted me but we never had baseball as a bond. Baseball was everything to me. All I ever wanted was to have a catch.”
Before we can even touch on the significance of this moment, we have to see the entry point of Ray’s way of thinking.
“My upbringing was up and down. At one point we lived together in a house in Queens. So in the house there were two sets of parents and 12 kids. So, in essence there were six boys. Of the six boys, I’m the only one alive today. I’m the only one who didn’t go to prison. Just to touch on how we grew up.”
“I was the oldest of all the kids. When my father left us, it felt like I was always waiting for him. I thought he was going to come back. See, at one point my father got into a fight with my mother and he beat her so bad, he thought he killed her. So he took me to Cuba and called back to the states to find out if she was still alive. Then he left me in Cuba because he was in the air force at the time. He reported back to base. It took my mother six months to get me out of Cuba back to the states. From that point on, my mother was trying to keep the thought of my father out of my mind. But I’d see the other kids playing catch with their fathers and I’d think ‘Where’s my dad?’ So that’s why I always keep two gloves and a ball in my car.”
It’s hard to put into words what Ray is offering here. Maybe I’m stumbling because I know firsthand the void of a fatherless household. I’m a firm believer that it’s more than enough to simply clear your own hurt and frustration from the world in regards to these childhood grievances. Hurt people have an endless capacity to hurt others; and healed people? Well, I’m sure you can draw a straight line.
Ray chooses to go on the offensive. He extends a second chance, a “make up credit”. The bond doesn’t have to be lost; and the wound doesn’t have to go unmended. So, when Ray approaches life, as it is today, this is where it all emanates from: understanding. Friction always has a root; and Ray seems to gloss over the branches –the yelling, the accusations, the ridicule, the physical provocations. Those are just symptoms. He’s a solutions kind of guy. A central lesson from the man that would eventually become a bigger-than-life father figure to him.
Yet, as Ray mentioned briefly, he wasn’t pre-destined for greatness. He was predestined for hardship and a jail cell. Maybe Ray didn’t know it at the time but the belief that a young afro-latino would have nothing but low expectations to look forward to was like a whispered curse, that could be retched up quickly, as though it were pressurized by a strong, guttural, primal urge –the pleasure we take in damning another…hanging the sum total of our everyday fault-findings onto a face, a name, an idea.
And so Ray’s story almost didn’t happen. The soon-to-be bat boy turned Yankees icon could’ve followed a lot of the neighborhood kids to the jail cell, to the grave…or maybe something as equally successful but completely disconnected from his passion. Besides, when he was picked up by Steinbrenner and awarded the opportunity to become the influential man he is today, he wasn’t doing anything half as noble. He was finding his way to the Bronx, up from Brooklyn, to run around and get into messy situations with his brothers. On the day that changed the rest of his life, Ray was simply following through on a dare…a rather prototypical scenario of peer pressure and chest beating, to mark the old Yankees stadium wall with graffiti. “They were going to knock down the whole stadium in 1973 and renovate it so everyone would mark them and whitewash them. So, I went to do a big NY on the wall. All of a sudden, a car pulls up, turns out to be George Steinbrenner…and everyone scatters and I’m caught. So he takes me down to the old holding cell at the stadium. They were going to take me to 44th…” and while it would make for a prettier story to say that George Steinbrenner, the enigmatic Yankees owner that brought baseball to a golden era, saw something special in Ray, there’s an underlying competitive streak that seems to have had equal weight.
“Let me put it to you this way, when George grabbed me from the streets and brought me to the ballpark, he did it because an angry security guard that worked for him said ‘There’s nothing you can do for these people…’; and George looked at this man and then he looked at me, and he said ‘You’re going to work off your damages and you’re going to prove to this man and others that he’s wrong. He made me the batboy for the Yankees right then and there.”
This chance encounter, and challenge to Steinbrenner’s gauge of the world, is the inception point, although it was no Cinderella story.
Ray still fought off the stigma against the Afro-latino population at the time (most visibly personified in the same security guard that verbalized his prejudice to Steinbrenner…feeling emboldened whenever he was alone and within earshot of Ray) but he didn’t engage with it emotionally. It’s not always easy to tell what contributed to Ray’s unique ability to “know better”. At times, it seems Ray has always instinctually known that there is more to a man’s story when he’s so angry. At other times, you can see that even when Steinbrenner wasn’t around, there were plenty of people who did their best to stick up for Ray including the historic catcher, Elston Howard, who once caught that same security guard hauling Ray off of the baseball field during a game, attempting to reduce him to a “shoe shine boy”. Why not? In the security guard’s eyes, that’s all people like Ray were good for.
Against these odds, Ray was getting the tutelage of a lifetime from George Steinbrenner. He learned to take pride in his heritage; he learned to take care of the people in his life; he learned to bless even his enemies (even to value that security guard who, for all his faults, had a purpose); and he learned how to bring people together.
To be frank, Mr. Negron has so many stories about his ability to bring people together throughout the years, it’s dizzying. From his time in the later 70’s as a personal assistant to Reggie Jackson, fostering a relationship between Jackson and Thurman Munson (despite the extremely contentious relationship and rivalry) to pulling Reggie Jackson and John Lennon together during a jog in Central park. Meanwhile, Ray went the extra mile for every single player on the team. He didn’t need the official title of someone’s “personal assistant” to be in their corner. Every bit of love and support extended to him was returned tenfold from Ray.
Responsibilities also accrued onto his already jam-packed list. Musicians and movie stars in the stands of the historic stadium led to appearances in 15 films including Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club with Gregory Hines, Richard Gere, Diane Lane and Nicholas Cage to name a few of the screen titans involved.
He’d been dabbling in writing a number of children’s books based off of his experiences. “For years, people were asking if I would do a book about George Steinbrenner and I, and Billy Martin. They wanted the story. I went to every publisher in the city and they wanted the book. I went to Judith Regan over at HarperCollins. She had her own imprint. Judith asked if I would take a meeting with her. Now, I’d always been writing stories of working with kids. I was going to schools and hospitals; and this was taught to me by Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson and George Steinbrenner. They had this thing…we must be here for these kids. So I wrote stories about these kids. Judith said she loved my stories and she wanted a story about George. I got great numbers kicking around from other publishers but they wanted dirt. I wasn’t interested. I wanted to write a children’s book.” With the go-ahead, he wrote children’s books that became best-sellers and won awards. Eventually, this led to his own animated movie, Henry & Me, a touching story about a child with cancer, getting mentorship from the baseball greats throughout history. “I called all my Hollywood friends, Chazz Palminteri, Richard Gere, Danny Aiello, Luis Guzman…I called everyone I knew and they did the film for free.”
It should come as no surprise that these Hollywood A-listers took time out of their schedules for Ray. Ray’s energy inspires this kind of charity and loyalty. He may say that it’s simply what’s been taught to him but it also feels innate; not a matter of regurgitation by way of rote memory. He’s an enduring symbol of just what could happen when a person is given a chance, some hope, a dream, some direction. His infectiousness has even spilled over onto his children, two of which traded the high profile pursuits of baseball stardom for the thankless civil pursuit of being police officers. He’s delivered inspirational speeches at schools; gave a speech about alcoholism and addiction to the United Nations; and was honored by the Department of Homeland Security for his leadership in the Hispanic community.
His reach has been dizzying. I found myself with pages upon pages of backstory on this giant of a man; and the only thing more daunting than compiling it, was trying to understand how it could all fit into one lifetime.
Mr. Negron had a simple answer. Maybe the only plausible answer:
“There must be a God because there were six boys in my house and I’m the only one alive. I don’t know…I guess God had a master plan all along.”