NEW YORK -- Friday was certainly an emotional day in Yankee Stadium, as it marked the first game played there following the deaths of George Steinbrenner and Bob Sheppard, but manager Joe Maddon and the Rays focused on going about their business as usual.
Maddon and his players paid their respects to both Yankees legends, particularly Tampa native Steinbrenner and the impact he had on Major League Baseball. But they also spoke about the importance of staying focused, though that would prove to be a difficult task given the unusually emotional atmosphere in New York.
"I don't know how they're going to react. From our perspective, I just want us to play our game. There's nothing for us to really analyze or reflect upon," Maddon said. "This is a situation that has really, I guess, injured the New York Yankees, and we are really respectful of that. But we're here to play baseball.
"I sympathize with the people and the city and the organization, but for us, we want to continue along the same trek that we'd been working on at the end of the first half. As much as Mr. Steinbrenner liked to beat the Devil Rays and the Rays, we like to beat the Yankees equally as much. From our perspective, we're coming up here to play a three-game series."
And Steinbrenner certainly liked to beat the Rays, whether it was a regular-season series or a meaningless Spring Training contest. Maddon and Yankees manager Joe Girardi both recalled times when Steinbrenner would encourage his team to send a full squad to spring games against the Rays, simply because of his desire to remind the upstart franchise of the Yankees' influence in Tampa.
"George wanted to keep it a Yankee town, in a sense," Girardi said. "Those games were very important to him because that was his home, and obviously he was around the town and he wanted to keep that his home. He took it very seriously."
Maddon never met Steinbrenner, who passed away in Tampa on Tuesday, but he has read and heard a lot about him. Whereas most people have expressed their admiration for The Boss' competitiveness and unparalleled desire to win, Maddon pointed to his charitable and philanthropic work as the most unique and impressive aspect of his character.
"Our reflection is not nearly the same as the people of New York, obviously -- or even the people of Tampa, where he resided and did a lot of philanthropic work -- which I think really should be talked about even more than it has," he said. "I guess he would give anonymously, [and] I really agree with that way of doing things. Obviously, there's probably a lot of untold stories out there that may come out now. That's the part of Mr. Steinbrenner that I find really interesting.
"Everybody wants to win. Everybody talks about how much he wanted to win -- everybody wants to win that much. But the difference is that he did things other people didn't do behind the scenes. That, to me, is the part of him that's really interesting."
Reliever Randy Choate, who pitched for the Yankees from 2000 to 2003, talked to Steinbrenner twice while with the team: when the owner congratulated him after a playoff win in 2000, and following Spring Training in 2001. Steinbrenner, a member of the University of Florida's Bull Gator booster program and a generous donor to the school despite never attending, even took note of the fact that he was talking to a player from Florida State, a rival school.
"He kind of pinched me on the shoulder and said, 'Even if you are a Seminole,' " Choate said. "Obviously, he even took note of that. He knew the finer details. Otherwise I don't think that place would be run the way it's run."
Left fielder Carl Crawford also offered plenty of praise for Steinbrenner, especially how he has helped improve the lives of players, and not just those wearing pinstripes. The way Steinbrenner helped raise players' salaries through big free-agent signings has had a lasting impact on the game and such players as Crawford, who will become a free agent after this season.
"We definitely appreciate what he's done for baseball," Crawford said. "You can't ask for a better situation, so I'm definitely grateful for that."
When asked if there would ever be another Major League owner as influential or important as Steinbrenner, Maddon said that only time will tell. However, he said, Steinbrenner was absolutely the right man to push baseball in the direction it has taken.
"I guess every generation, every moment has the right man for that time, and he was that man," he said. "He definitely had the wherewithal to do it as well as the inner desire or makeup ... to pretty much bring this organization back to where it had been years before. I think every generation has a need, and when that need arises, the right man shows up. And he was the right man for that moment."
Adam Berry is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.