NEW YORK (AP) – George Steinbrenner says he’s fit and feeling fine. And for those who don’t believe him, the New York Yankees owner invites them to join him at the gym.

“No, I did not have a stroke. I am not ill. I work out daily,” he said in a telephone interview last week from his office in Tampa, Fla.

“I’d like to see people who are saying that to come down here and do the workout that I do,” he said.

Steinbrenner discussed his health, his team, the upcoming postseason and other topics in a rare, lengthy interview with The Associated Press. Despite rumors that his health has deteriorated, he seemed confident and upbeat, albeit a bit reserved at times.

Asked what he thinks about the Yankees’ chances in ending their five-season drought of World Series titles this year, Steinbrenner is optimistic.

“We’re going to win it,” Steinbrenner said before the Yankees clinched their ninth straight AL East title. “We’re going all the way.”

As the once-towering figure has retreated from the public eye, the 76-year-old Steinbrenner’s health has become a hot topic in baseball.

Speculation increased after he fainted during a memorial service for football great Otto Graham in December 2003 and was hospitalized, and his gait has been unsteady at times this year. During last month’s groundbreaking for the new Yankee Stadium, his comments were short and clipped. His staff insulates him from reporters at games.

Steinbrenner spends most of his time in Tampa, and has slowly been giving up control of the operation to his family members, including son-in-law Steve Swindal, 50, and his sons Hank, 47, and Hal, 36. Steinbrenner has designated Swindal as his successor.

“I have relinquished pretty much all control of the Yankees,” Steinbrenner said. “I had to make room for the young people. You can’t hold them back.”

Swindal has been especially involved with the Yankees operation lately, helping to make trades and renegotiate contracts. But that doesn’t mean Steinbrenner isn’t on the phone with general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Torre on a regular basis.

“I miss the day-to-day, but I still talk to Cashman every day,” he said. “I talk to Torre a lot. I still offer my opinion. They still listen quite a bit.”

“My sons and son-in-law are running the team,” he said. “They learned hard under me about how to succeed. We have a lot of good guys signed.”

Steinbrenner became known as “The Boss” because of the iron fist with which he ruled the Yankees, including his penchant for firing managers and dressing down players when they fail. His team made 20 managerial changes from 1973-95, but then he hired Torre and stability finally set in.

Steinbrenner, a prominent shipbuilder, purchased the floundering team in 1973 and rebuilt the storied Yankees into a winning dynasty, capturing six World Series championships and 10 American League pennants in his tenure.

He opened his wallet to buy high-priced talent and subjected them to strict discipline on things like players’ hair and dress – the kind of discipline he once faced as a student at Culver Military Academy.

He is considered one of the most successful owners in sports history.

“We are the first billion-dollar baseball team,” he says. “I never dreamt the team would ever be worth that much when we bought it for $8.8 million … I’d say that was a pretty good investment.”

But his team struggled in the late 1980s and early ’90s, failing to make the playoffs between their 1981 AL pennant and 1995 wild card berth. Steinbrenner also served two lengthy suspensions, one following a guilty plea for conspiring to make illegal campaign contributions and another for paying a small-time gambler money to get damaging information on outfielder Dave Winfield.

Steinbrenner returned and brought the Yankees back. The club this week clinched its 12th consecutive playoff berth.

Steinbrenner said most of his time is spent with his family now: his wife, Joan, their four children and 12 grandchildren.

“I would like to be a better husband and better father,” he said. “I would also like to do more for the young people. I can never do enough for them.”

Off the field, Steinbrenner has quietly put scores of less fortunate youngsters through school and made large donations to various colleges including Williams College, his alma mater. He has also been known to help total strangers in need, privately sending a check after reading about them in a New York tabloid.

Steinbrenner remains deeply committed to breeding and training thoroughbred race horses at his family’s 750-acre farm in Ocala, Fla. One of Steinbrenner’s horses, Hemingway’s Key, finished third in the Preakness Stakes on May 20, the second jewel in the Triple Crown.

While Steinbrenner would love to win a Triple Crown race, he would also love to give another championship to Yankee fans, whom he described as “loyal and knowledgeable like no others in the world.” He said fans would often come up to him on the sidewalk or in a restaurant in Manhattan and give him their opinions and advice.

“They are involved,” he said. “They’re the best.”

He still attends many of the games, and the Yankees will always be his love, he said.

“I want the Yankees to keep on winning,” he said. “To keep in contention. I hate to lose. To lose is a failure in my book.”

AP-ES-09-21-06 1519EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.