"Yes We Can"
LEGEND OF THE “YES WE CAN” KID
George M. Steinbrenner III, principal owner of the New York Yankees was sitting at a table with others having dinner at the Diamond Club Restaurant at Shea Stadium. The year was 1974, and the Steinbrenner ownership was in its infancy as the team played at Shea for two years awaiting the renovation of Yankee Stadium.
With that “we can - I can” positive attitude and New York state of mind, and at the young age of 16, Chris Karalekas passed a security guard, walked into that same dining room at Shea, and introduced himself to renowned Cleveland shipbuilder, George Steinbrenner.
Wearing his maroon Long Island City High School varsity jacket and blue jeans, and with his “Yes We Can” banner tucked under his left arm, he walked up to the table, excused himself and apologized for interrupting dinner. Chris thereafter asked to have a word with Mr. Steinbrenner. As Mr. Steinbrenner began to get up from the table he clearly saw Chris somewhat nervously holding the bright yellow bed sheet of a banner under his arm. Mr. Steinbrenner immediately recognized him and said, “ Hey, you’re the “Yes We Can” kid ! How are you young man?” Exactly 30 years later those moments are frozen in time.
Chris went on to innocently and boldly asks Mr. Steinbrenner if the
team could possibly take the banner on the road trip as a good luck charm. After all, Chris reasoned, with the Yankees in their first pennant race in years,
they needed all the luck and support against a great Orioles team that went on to have one of the greatest September’s in recorded baseball history that they
next thing Chris knew, Mr. Steinbrenner peering down at him in a firm but very compassionate way, put his hand on Chris’ shoulder and with a straight face
told him, “No Chris, we can’t take the banner. You’re going to have to take it. Have your bags packed because you’re leaving with the team for the road
trip to Cleveland.” He went on to add, “See that lady there – that’s Judy Serra, she’ll help you with all the tickets and arrangements. See you in
Cleveland, Chris.” Well, as it turned out the entire “Yes We Can” gang also went on the trip, with Mr. Steinbrenner generously agreeing to permit
Chris’ brother George, friend Louie, and Aunt Elaine to accompany him.
After shaking Mr. Steinbrenner’s hand and thanking him, Chris and his buddy Louie, not knowing what hit them, danced and galloped down the rotunda at Shea gasping for air and occasionally stopping to look at each other in astonishment, in a joyous frolic beyond description. It was a beautifully clear New York night, and the stars in the sky were never brighter.
Over the years there have been many things written and said about
George Steinbrenner. But let it not be denied, long before he was to ever become one of, if not THE most dynamic owner in professional sports – this
imperfect man, in this imperfect world, gave a perfect memory to a kid who loved baseball and who loved his team.
At Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium for the weekend series, Mr.
Steinbrenner was seen jumping and hugging these “kids from New York” as they would sweep the four game series. The gang ate next to broadcasters Bill White,
Phil Rizzuto, and Frank Messer, and would meet Bobby Murcer, Lou Piniella, and become lifetime friends with Sandy Alomar Sr. and Rudy May. In the end, the
Yankees would only lose the pennant by a few games to the Orioles, but 1974’s unexpected and exciting second
place finish would establish the foundation of what was to come under the Steinbrenner regime.
There was a time in New York City back in the early 70’s when the
Mets ruled the baseball landscape. Believe it or not, the Yankees, even with their legendary history were an afterthought believe it or not under the desultory ownership of CBS at
With the Mets coming off their 1969 World Series miracle victory
over the Orioles, and with their competitive play in the early 70’s, it was the late great Tug McGraw and his “Ya Gotta Believe” motto who inspired a kid
growing up in Queens as a Yankee fan surrounded by Met fans to come up with a slogan himself.
In 1974, Chris Karalekas was too young at 16 to have seen the Yankee
championship teams of the past. Rooting for a mediocre team since he could remember, like any kid, he began reading and imagining what it would be like to have
a winning team to root for in the Bronx.
Surrounded by an uncle who taught him the game and who loved the
Mets; and cousins and friends who adored the Mets, Chris needed the impetus of a legitimate pennant race in ’74 to begin dreaming about experiencing what a
World Series must be like in Yankee Stadium.
In late September 1974, after many years of never experiencing a pennant race, the Yankees were finally legitimate contenders. One morning, Chris excitedly asked his mom to print words that came to him in a dream after reading about past Yankee championships. He said to himself, “we can win it, yeah, we can win it, yes we can.” So, Chris asked his mom, who was a gifted artist, to put the words: YES WE CAN, on oak tag paper so he can take it to Yankee games at Shea (Yankee Stadium was being renovated in ’74 & ’75). Chris simply wanted to help inspire a spirit and an excitement to rekindle the fan base, which had dwindled considerably since the mid-60. This, mind you, from a 16 year old who studied attendance charts, knew batting averages to percentage points, and who two years later took his transistor radio and earpiece to church in 1976 as he was part of a bridal party…but had to listen to a World Series game in church as his beloved Yankees played the Big Red Machine of Cincinnati.
Instead of oak tag, his mom, Mary, took some old red tablecloths and
cut out and hand stitched the words YES WE CAN on a bright yellow bed sheet. His mom’s thinking at the time was simple: “ This way I could see you and the
boys on TV, and know that you’re all safe.” Little did she know that a star was born, and that the spirit of that banner would live on for thirty years
Three decades would come and go, but the spirit of that fabled cloth
banner and what it represents inevitably surfaces at the Stadium especially when the team needs a boost. Over the years the banner has appeared countless times
in newspapers, magazines and on local, and national TV. Courtesy of Mr. Steinbrenner, Chris and his brothers had
the banner at the ’96 World Series in Atlanta, and they were present in San Diego for the ’98 World Series.
Although his team would go on to win six world championships during
the Steinbrenner era, what motivates him to continue going to games at the age of 46 is his loyalty to his team; his passion to celebrate the pure joys baseball
creates; and his friends who insist he go to keep up tradition.
In his hometown of Astoria, Chris will always be Chris – but he
will always and forever be known as the “Yes We Can” kid.
“ I was beginning to wonder that perhaps I was getting too old for
this (going to games with the banner). But being at Game 7 of the ALCS at Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox convinced me that this is part of who I am. Here I
am, 46 years old and analyzing every pitch and jumping with the joy of a 16 year old…not feeling an arthritic pain in the world, and I’m on clouds without
an ounce of alcohol in me. To hear the crowd roar in unison, and to hear the synchronized chants of “Yes We Can, Yes We Can” echoing in a place where
Mantle, DiMaggio, Gehrig & Ruth played I would argue is as genuine a high as there could be. Peering over my
shoulder I see the banner on the center field Diamond Vision. To be hugged by total strangers who come up to me incredulously to thank me, and who remember the
banner over the years is surreal to me.
Marvelous it is, how a sea of humanity all in one place, brought
together to share and celebrate an athletic competition, coming from every imaginable ethnic background – and everyone gets along. Everyone gets along. In the
new normal we all live in now, it says here that we must live with a new fear, but we should never live in fear. We need to celebrate more, and embrace life and
never stop dreaming that the unimaginable can become imaginable. Remember, from Astoria, to the Bronx, to Athens, Greece – it will always be – YES WE CAN
forever. Baseball as an institution and game will survive the greed, and it says here baseball will thrive in Greece one day, and the likes of Harry
Agganis, Alex Campanis, Alex Kampouris, Milt Pappas, Gus Niarhos, Gus Triandos, & Billy Loes will live on
forever. We need to celebrate their contributions.”
Finally, over the years, the “Yes We Can” banner has also been
used on rare occasions outside the realm of the Yankees. Back in 1976 the banner was hung outside the building of
Long Island City High School in support of then Principal Dr. Howard L. Hurwitz. The Board of Education tried to suspend Dr. Hurwitz for being the
disciplinarian he was. Mind you, the majority of parents and students supported Dr. Hurwitz for creating a wonderfully safe and academic environment.
After making national news, Dr. Hurwitz was vindicated.
Just last year, the banner served as inspiration for a Huntington Tri-Village Little League playoff game. The team had the banner draped along the fence on the third base line. Kids marveled when they read the inscription written on back of the banner by George Steinbrenner: To The Yes We Can Gang!
And to come full circle, the banner has served as an inspiration in Greece to kids and adults alike. Whether held by kids in the villages of the Peloponnesos mountains, ballplayers in Salonika, or by the coaches and officers of the Hellenic Amateur Baseball Federation at the foothills of The Acropolis…the “Yes We Can” spirit presumes no boundaries, and inspires one and all to aspire to the greater possibilities in life.
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