JOE MOLLOY went from running the NEW YORK YANKEES to teaching gym in Tampa, Florida. And he couldn't be happier.
Photographs by John Loomis.
On Friday afternoons at Webb Middle School in Tampa, Florida, boys and girls shuffle into the multipurpose room anticipating what -- for the majority of young American teenagers -- can only be described as unadulterated agony.
There, on a sturdy wood floor beneath a handful of lights, a physical-education teacher named Joe Molloy stares down his pupils before bellowing, in an irritatingly enthusiastic voice, “So, who’s ready to dance?!”
Cue the music. It reverberates powerfully off the walls and ceiling, peppy, uplifting jams straight out of Ricky Martin 101. “Okay, let’s do some warm-ups!” Molloy yells. “How about a little cha-cha?”
With this, the boys and girls -- lobotomized by a day of Pythagorean theorems, Civil War lessons, and square pizza with a side of fried potato puffs for lunch -- begin to move their bodies, cautiously at first, aware that one goofy quiver would equal a week of mocking. Then, gradually, the teens loosen up and get into the routine.
Before long, Molloy is standing before 30 to 40 kids who are grooving like they’ve never grooved before. “It’s joyful,” he says of the school’s weekly Fun Friday. “Absolutely joyful. It’s a largely Hispanic school, so we incorporate a lot of salsa and merengue. I never thought I’d ever teach dance, but I really love it.”
If the sight of a conservative-looking 48-year-old instructing a bunch of kids how to dance is a bit odd, it’s only fitting. After all, how many former-owners-of-the- New-York-Yankees-turned-gym-teachers are there?
“I’d guess,” says Molloy, laughing, “that I’m the only one.”
Indeed. Seventeen years ago, Molloy made the final call for the Yankees to use their first-round pick in the June amateur draft on a little-known infielder out of Kalamazoo, Michigan, named Derek Jeter. Four years later, he and general manager Gene Michael met for three and a half hours with an unemployed sub-.500 manager before deciding, Okay, we’ll give this Joe Torre fellow a chance. Less than a year after that, Molloy earned a World Series ring when New York defeated Atlanta in 1996.
Now, ahem, he’s teaching gym.
But wait! This is not that type of story -- fallen, down-on-his-luck hero goes from caviar and lobster tails to Whoppers and fries. No, believe it or not, Molloy wants to be here, officiating games of kickball, making sure nobody gets hurt during flag football, teaching the intricacies of shooting a competent free throw. “It’s where I belong,” he says. “What I was born to do.”
MOLLOY speaks of his current place in life with nary an ounce of sarcasm or remorse. As a seventh grader at Tampa’s St. Lawrence Catholic School, Molloy thought that his destiny might be to become, of all things, a priest. Hence, upon graduating from Tampa Catholic High School in 1979, he moved to the Woodside section of Queens, New York, to train at St. Francis College and live in a small friary. Before long, however, Molloy realized it wasn’t the life for him and that he would better serve the world as an educator. So, upon graduating from St. Leo College in 1984 with a degree in physical education, he set off on that path. In the ensuing 24 years, it would take him to nine different Tampa-based schools as a science, theology, and physical education teacher, as well as a principal and assistant principal.
Oh yeah -- with one minor detour.
Though 99.9 percent of men in Molloy’s shoes would have immediately made the connection between the girl and the famous last name, he was clueless. It wasn’t until weeks later, when Jessica brought Molloy home to meet her father, that he realized this was no ordinary family. There was the George Steinbrenner -- the one who fired Billy Martin five times; who sparred with Reggie Jackson; who was worth more than dozens of the world’s countries -- standing up to shake hands, asking about his teaching career, behaving as politely as could be.
When the couple married on November 7, 1987, it was as if Molloy -- the working-class son of a lab technician and a schoolteacher -- had morphed into royalty. Among the attendees at their wedding at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral were Donald Trump, Lee Iacocca, and Howard Cosell. The presiding priest was Cardinal John O’Connor. Opera great Robert Merrill sang “Ave Maria.” A reception followed at landmark New York restaurant 21.
Wrote Mary Jo Melone of the St. Petersburg Times: “It was Cinderella in reverse and began when Molloy, a dutiful young guy from Tampa without any of what used to be called prospects, found his princess.”
When the school year ended, Molloy quit his job to take up his new father-in-law’s offer to work full time for the Yankees. It was far from a dream come true because, first, Molloy knew little about baseball and, second, who could dream such a thing?
“Admittedly, I wasn’t initially an expert,” he says. “But what George did was let me travel with him, let me understand the minor-league circuit, let me sit in on conference calls and grasp the intricacies. It was a remarkable learning experience.”
And -- whoosh! -- like that, Molloy’s title was owner and managing general partner of the world’s most famous (with apologies to Manchester United) sports franchise. When, on July 30, 1990, commissioner Fay Vincent banned Steinbrenner from baseball for life after he paid a small-time gambler named Howie Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on outfielder Dave Winfield, Molloy was officially the man running the entire show. He finalized trades. (Good: Acquiring Paul O’Neill from Cincinnati for Roberto Kelly; Bad: Sending J.T. Snow to the Angels for Jim Abbott.) He signed off on free-agent additions. (Good: Wade Boggs; Bad: Mike Gallego.) Even when Steinbrenner was reinstated in 1993, Molloy’s influence remained strong. He oversaw the Yankees’ minor-league system as well as the construction and operation of the team’s state-of-the-art spring-training home in Tampa. On December 6, 1995, he was dispatched to Arenas, a Tampa-based ice cream and coffee shop, to have a face-to-face discussion with Seattle Mariners first baseman Tino Martinez. Molloy had pushed the idea of adding his left-handed bat to the lineup and needed to make sure the player was interested in coming to the Bronx. “It was just Tino and me, talking the talk,” Molloy says. “He wanted to be a Yankee; I wanted him to be a Yankee.”
The next day, New York sent two players (third baseman Russ Davis and pitcher Sterling Hitchcock) to Seattle for Martinez and two pitchers. In six seasons with the Yankees, Martinez -- who Molloy signed to a five-year, $20.5 million contract -- hit 175 home runs and won four World Series titles. “That,” Molloy says, “worked out well.”
UNFORTUNATELY, Molloy’s marriage to Jessica did not work out as well as his baseball career. The couple began encountering difficulties in 1997, and on March 6, 1998, he filed for divorce. Molloy says he had already been plotting a return to teaching, but clearly his position as managing general partner came with one weighty-yet-unspoken Steinbrennian caveat: “Must be married to my kid.”
The ensuing publicity was vintage New York. The Molloy-Steinbrenner parting was covered with no less vigor than a Michael Jackson breakdown. BOSS’ SON-INLAW MAKES A PITCH FOR ALIMONY, screamed the headline from the July 7, 1998, New York Daily News -- one of many from the time.
It was around then that Molloy called Brother Jay McDonald, the principal at Tampa Catholic High School, and asked if there was any room for a man sporting a diamond-encrusted World Series ring.
“Well,” said McDonald, “we need somebody to teach religion.”
And that was that. Molloy, who enjoys an “excellent” relationship with his ex-wife and shares joint custody of their four children, jumped back into his old life as if no time had passed. He wrote up lesson plans and organized field trips. In 1999 he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership from National-Louis University, and he is a member of myriad educational associations.
Though he has followed the Yankees from afar, Molloy no longer spends his days and nights rooting for the Bronx Bombers. When Hank and Hal Steinbrenner took over for their ailing father last year, Molloy reflected on what was and what could have been. The man teaching the cha-cha in khakis and a polo shirt could have been permanently affixed atop a franchise worth $1.3 billion. He could have been called “the Boss,” could be dining at Per Se with Billy Crystal and Mariah Carey, could be running the biggest team on the biggest stage in the biggest city.
“I’ll be honest -- sometimes I itch to get back in the thick of things,” he says. “But at the end of the day I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. No, I’m not the owner of the New York Yankees. But I’m pretty darn happy.
“That’s good enough for me.”
Jeff Pearlman is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero.