Ah, Tampa. The balmy breeze. The sandy white beaches of acceptable granularity. The lingering fury of the most dyspeptic owner in baseball history. I speak, of course, of George Steinbrenner. Welcome back for another edition of "The Boss Files," our document-driven retrospective of Steinbrenner's life in Tampa in the '80s. We've already told you about how he ordered a former FBI agent to fix his overflowing toilet in the dead of night. Then there was the time Steinbrenner punked the FBI director himself, William Sessions. Now we bring you a quintessential Florida tale of almost unspeakable horror. It involves a land dispute, jet skis, and a massive, violent redneck.
Before we wade into the details, I should mention that our Steinbrenner anecdotes come from a cache of FBI documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request I submitted while reporting a story about Howie Spira, the gambler who sold dirt on Dave Winfield to Steinbrenner in the '80s. (You can read about that sordid affair here.) Spira was convicted of extorting Steinbrenner, who, in turn, was banned from baseball. Reports that Steinbrenner used his FBI contacts to impel an indictment of Spira triggered an internal FBI investigation into the Yankee owner's "improper association" with the bureau's Tampa office. Our documents come from that investigation. They arrived after we published the Spira story, but we think it worthwhile to post portions of them. (In case you're wondering, the FBI managed to find itself innocent of any wrongdoing.)
Now about that redneck ...
Imagine yourself a visitor to Tampa circa 1982. You've come for the aforementioned delights. Maybe you've also come for a tickle at that new Mons Venus club. Or perhaps you're just here to take a bit of radiation on the strand. Either way, you're staying at George Steinbrenner's Bay Harbor Inn (under new ownership today), where the "service is warm, the location is waterfront, amenities are full-service and accommodations are affordable."
You check into the hotel and head down to the beach. You hop in the water for a dip. The waves lap. The gulls cry. All is at peace ... until you hear a distant buzzing noise, like the sound of a wasp rousted from a ground nest. The buzzing grows louder, closer, angrier. Concerned, you shade your eyes and squint into the sun, trying to locate the disturbance. Across the bay, you see it—a mammoth shape hurtling toward you at an impossible rate of speed. Guttural curses rise above the drone of the 650 cc engine, the sound of onrushing doom. You rush back for the safety of the sand, but it's too late. A massive, violent redneck on a jet ski is upon you. He is hunting you. You are a guest at George Steinbrenner's hotel, and a massive, violent redneck is hunting you on a jet ski.
At least that's how I imagine it after reading the FBI documents, which admittedly present this interlude in more arid fashion. But we can glean enough to know that something weird and terrible went down in Old Tampa Bay three decades ago. Back in the '80s in Tampa, Steinbrenner hosted lavish cocktail parties at a private club and networked in his luxury box at Buccaneers games. The other jewel in his portfolio was the Bay Harbor Inn, a six-story hotel situated on a crescent of beach on Rocky Point Island on the east side of the bay. Steinbrenner used the hotel to quarter out-of-town guests. It was convenient to the airport and had views of the water and downtown.
Rocky Point's other big property owner was Julian Lifsey Jr., a lawyer and land developer. In the '70s, Lifsey was responsible for the transformation of the island, which was once "vacant land and dusty shell roads." Lifsey's development plans derived from a unique experience, if the website for his real estate firm is to be believed:
In the 1970s, Lifsey and Specialty Restaurant Corporation Founder David Tallichet traveled the world in Tallichet's restored B-52 bombers in search of unique restaurant concepts for Rocky Point and eventually signed long-term leases. Lifsey and Tallichet signed leases for Crawdaddy's, Whiskey Joes, Castaways and the Rusty Pelican.
Let us not ask what corners of the world Lifsey bombed to find inspiration for a restaurant named the Rusty Pelican. What matters is what happened when Lifsey wanted to sell a lot on Rocky Point to George Steinbrenner. The FBI documents, which are heavily redacted, indicate the lot was "a parcel of waterfront property adjacent" to Steinbrenner's hotel. Steinbrenner wanted nothing to do with it, not at Lifsey's "inflated" price. We may never know what words were exchanged between the two men. But we can be certain that words were exchanged. A blood feud commenced. An epic one.
At some point, Lifsey became so enraged at Steinbrenner that he did something we have all contemplated once or twice: He hired a violent, 6-foot-8-inch, 275-pound, ruddy-complected ex-con redneck out of Frisco City, Ala., to harass guests at his enemy's hotel by running jet skis back and forth along the shoreline all day. Lifsey's idea, it seems, was to pressure Steinbrenner into buying the waterfront lot.
But you didn't take a swing at The Boss without expecting a knife in the ribs in return. If Lifsey thought he was a big deal in his hometown, he didn't realize that, in Tampa, Steinbrenner was a made man. The Yankees owner had cultivated a tight relationship with the FBI's Tampa field office, as we've noted in previous installments of this series. He'd hired Phil McNiff, the former special agent in charge of the Tampa office, to do "troubleshooting" work at Steinbrenner's American Shipbuilding Company. And he lavished gifts and favors on FBI agents who were still with the bureau. All Steinbrenner asked in return was a possibly illegal background check here and there. That's what he asked McNiff to do for him with regard to the massive, violent redneck on a jet ski. (Note: The name of Steinbrenner's favor-doer was redacted in the FBI document, but it could only have been McNiff.)
In short order, McNiff produced a Department of Justice rap sheet on the redneck. You'll find it at the bottom of this post. The FBI redacted the man's name, but from the stray bits of biography left over I think I've pieced together who it was. Hello, Joe Bailey:
That's Bailey's mug shot from 2007, after he was arrested for driving without a valid license. He was arrested for much graver things as a younger man. Let's see: a couple counts of aggravated battery in Tampa, a little aggravated assault in Houston, some assault and battery in Mobile, illegally discharging firearms, transporting a stolen motorbike across state lines, obtaining money by false pretenses. Oh, and bigamy. That, folks, is what you call a shitkicker. A very large shitkicker.
But like so many other big men who tussled with Steinbrenner, Bailey would go quietly. It didn't take much, really, just McNiff—or whoever's name is beneath the FBI's black marker—confronting Bailey with his criminal history. The jet skis were silenced. Peace was restored to the Bay Harbor Inn. And Bailey? According to notes from an interview with a former FBI agent, "the 'redneck' mysteriously disappeared."
From what I could determine, Bailey, now 80, is alive and still in Tampa. At least he was recently. I couldn't find a phone number for him, but Bailey's current address is the same as the one on incorporation documents he filed in 2000, when, seemingly recovered from his aquatic brush with Steinbrenner, he launched a business called Florida Boat Rentals. I sent a Deadspin Tampa operative to check it out and give Bailey a chance to respond. I really wanted Bailey to respond. But here is all that we found:
The Tampa operative knocked on a few doors in the neighborhood to no avail. He also buttonholed two ladies to ask them, politely, if they knew a massive, violent redneck who lived in the area. They did not. Bailey had mysteriously disappeared again.
This would be an unfair place to end this bizarre tale. So here's a better ending for you. It's elaborated in this letter from the head of the Tampa FBI office to the FBI director about George Steinbrenner's "improper association":
As a matter of additional background, JULIAN LIFSEY was a Tampa attorney who owned a parcel of waterfront property adjacent to the BAY HARBOUR INN [sic], which is owned by GEORGE STEINBRENNER. As previously mentioned, LIFSEY came to the attention of the FBI in 1985, as a result of the political corruption investigation involving Hillsborough County Commissioners. One of the commissioners, [redacted], subsequently became a government witness and alleged that LIFSEY had offered him [redacted], a bribe to rezone the property adjacent to STEINBRENNER's hotel. The rezoning did not occur, and the bribe was not paid. LIFSEY was not charged in the corruption case.
In approximately 1987, LIFSEY was frequently mentioned in the Tampa newspapers when he began construction of a restaurant on the property adjacent to STEINBRENNER's hotel. This restaurant intruded on land that STEINBRENNER believed belonged to the BAY HARBOUR HOTEL [sic] and also obstructed the view from the hotel. Subsequently, STEINBRENNER sued LIFSEY to stop construction, but lost the suit. Shortly after the construction of the restaurant was completed, LIFSEY died.
There's the ending we needed. Steinbrenner thwarted Lifsey's redneck, so Lifsey obstructed Steinbrenner's view, then shuffled off into the eternal surf. God bless him. He died a winner.