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Written redemption

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

He was scared, just like the day 33 years ago when George Steinbrenner plucked him off the street.

Back then, Ray Negron was a 17-year-old who had just been caught by the New York Yankees owner spray-painting the walls at Yankee Stadium. Now he was a special adviser to Steinbrenner, and still, Negron hesitated to show him the book into which he had poured his heart.

It was called "The Boy of Steel," a touching story of a child with cancer who gets to be Yankees batboy for a day and meet the team's legends – present and past. Steinbrenner has a rather meaty role in illustrated form, showing up in his standard white turtleneck, and Negron, fully aware that The Boss didn't earn his nickname by picking daisies, feared the reaction.

"I didn't show him the book until he was going on a plane from New York to Tampa," Negron said. "I told his son-in-law Felix Lopez, 'Do not give him this book until you are 36,000 feet in the air.' He wasn't anywhere near where he could beat me up."

When the plane landed, Steinbrenner called Negron.

"I love it," he said.

Such praise has become commonplace for the book, borne of Negron's years spent giving children with cancer their special day at Yankee Stadium.

For years, book publishers have clung to the hope that Negron might tell his own tale. It is rather compelling: Steinbrenner yanked him out of the holding cell at Yankee Stadium the day of the spray painting incident and gave him a gig as the batboy for the Bronx Zoo teams of the late '70s. After straightening out his life, Negron became the go-between among Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin and Steinbrenner, counseled Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, and ascended to his current role as Yankees goodwill ambassador.

Instead, Negron wanted to tell the story of the kids he has seen – and the one child he never got to.

Book publisher Judith Regan, recently ousted from her position at HarperCollins, called Negron asking if he'd be interested in a biography. He told her he had another idea.

"Every celebrity thinks they have a children's book," Regan said.

"I'm not a celebrity," Negron replied.

He told her how around 200 terminally ill children have toured Yankee Stadium, how the tradition started with Babe Ruth and today continues with Robinson Cano, the Yankees' second baseman. How Michael Steele Watkins, a 6-year-old from Illinois diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a brain cancer found in children, was too sick to travel to New York and passed away before he had the chance.

"At that point, I just decided that I want all these kids to have a voice," Negron said. "I didn't want to do a book on the little boy dying. I wanted to do it on the 200 kids and the fact that they live, and the fact that there's hope, and the fact that research is working. I want them to draw strength."

From all of them came Michael Steel, the book's protagonist, who lays in a hospital bed, IV in his left arm, Yankee-hat-wearing teddy bear in his right. Cano comes to visit Michael and tells him he's going to try and hit a home run that night – a story drawn from Cano's first visit to sick children.

"He didn't promise, but he said he'd try, and I thought that was incredible," Negron said. "When he left, I know he didn't even think about it, but then he actually hit a home run. I asked him, 'Did you try to hit one for that kid?' He said, 'What are you talking about.' I told him, and he said, 'Man, I forgot that.'

"It was like the gods were talking."

Regan was convinced. Negron asked to send her an outline, and as he plotted the story, he kept thinking of his experiences with the children. In the bowels of Yankee Stadium is a small space known as Room 107. Today it is used for storage, mostly, aside from the chair that still occupies a sliver of space.

"I remember taking one kid to that room," Negron said. "It's where Lou Gehrig used to sit when he had ALS and wanted to get away. There was a chair. He'd sit on it, just meditate. When the kid went back to his dad, and I remember him saying, 'Dad, I could almost feel Lou Gehrig.' "

Whatever cynics think of the Yankee mythology, it lends "The Boy of Steel" a grand and mystical air that helped it reach No. 2 on The New York Times Best-Seller List for children's picture books. Negron expects it to be adapted into animated and live-action versions, and he's already working on "The Boy of Steel 2: Jackie and the Babe," which will focus on racism and tolerance. The letters of praise continue to rush in, from President Bush and Sen. Hillary Clinton and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, though Negron doesn't think any can match the one he received from Steinbrenner.

Then again, Negron knows the power of children and how his book speaks to them. Every time he stops at a hospital, he hands out copies of "The Boy of Steel."

All of them say the same thing: "Thank you, Mr. Negron."

No, he says.

Thank you.

To purchase "The Boy of Steel," visit www.theboyofsteel.com. All of the proceeds go to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the Tomorrows Children's Fund and Hewlett House.

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