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Opening Day Special: The Last Yankee


Matinglymo

Here’s an Opening Day treat from my pal Paul Solotaroff. “The Last Yankee” is a story he wrote about Don Mattingly for the National Sports Daily back in 1990 and at the time it rang true. Of course, this was before Derek Jeter. Still, dig this trip down memory lane as we get ready for the season to begin tonight in Houston.

 

“The Last Yankee”

By Paul Solotaroff
The National Sports Daily, July 6, 1990

It begins, of course, with Babe Ruth, the god of thunder, who invented the home run and the 12-hot dog breakfast. It runs through Lou Gehrig, the first baseman built like a center field monument, and through Joe DiMaggio, the center fielder straight from central casting. It culminates in Mickey Mantle, that beautiful wreck who played hard, lived hard, and once remarked in his forties that if he’d known he was going to live so long, he’d’ve taken better care of himself. “It,” of course, is the lineage of the One Great Yankee, the player who taught his generation about class and success, and set boys everywhere dreaming about pinstripes.

It wasn’t, God knows, anything like virtue that made Ruth an icon. What signified him to his age was his invincibility—he won everything in sight, and devastated teams doing it. His 500-foot shots were like bombs over Nagasaki; whenever he hit one, the other side just collapsed.

But the mythos of the Great Yankee has as much to do with heart as muscle. DiMaggio played on crippled heels; Gehrig, the last couple of years, could hardly bend to take grounders, so ravaged was he by ALS; Mantle hobbled through much of his career, his knee done in by a sprinkler head. Nonetheless, they endured like soldiers, Gehrig for 17 years, Joe D. for 13, the Mick for 18. Gehrig lasted through ’39, by which time DiMaggio was securely established; DiMaggio until ’51, when Mantle broke in. No one, alas, stepped up for Mantle but his legacy of courage and pride survived, in trust, for his eventual heir.

Beyond the monster home runs and memorable catches in center, though, what the One Great Yankee did was set absolute standards—Yankee standards. DiMaggio must have uttered all of 10 words his entire career, but his mute ferocity put the fear of God into his teammates. He once cornered Vic Raschi, who was 21–8 that year but had a nasty habit of squandering big leads, and told him that if he ever blew another one, he’d beat the hell out of him then and there. Nor was there any malingering permitted. If DiMaggio was going to go out there every day on splintered shins, then, believe it, everybody was going to play. One shudders to think what would have happened if Joe D. had ever played with Rickey Henderson.

Mantle may have been the culmination of the line—no one has ever had his combination of lefty-righty power and speed—but he was not the last of the Great Yankees. Reggie, with his drink-stirring swagger, was as true a son of Ruth as any of them. Forget the fact that he was only there for five years. They were titanic years, full of glorious theater; no one since the Babe has so enlivened the franchise.

And then, of course, there is Don Mattingly. All line drives and silence, he is the very incarnation of Gehrig: solemn and single-minded and as untaintable by George Steinbrenner as Gehrig was by Ruth. But this is where the lineage ends. When Mattingly goes, there will be no more like him. Rome is burning, the royal family disgraced. Soon, nothing will remain but the mad fiddler and his running slaves.

“My place in Yankee history?” sniggers Donald Arthur Mattingly. ”I’ll tell you what my place in Yankee history is. It’s hitting .260 on a struggling ballclub, and letting everyone down in here. At the moment, I don’t exactly feel too much a part of Ruth or Gehrig or DiMaggio.”

It is three hours before game time, and Mattingly, sheathed in sweat and silver bike shorts, is sitting in his corner cubicle, the place d’honneur in the Yankee clubhouse. The other players loll about, most of them still in street clothes, grazing on fruit or playing three-handed rummy, but Mattingly has already put in a fierce hour in the batting cage. His black bat propped beside him, he looks like he wants nothing so much as to go back there now, to the temple of his solemn devotions.

In the batting cage, there is the pure release of hard work, and the pleasure of attacking one baseball after another. But mostly, there is the relief of being away from this team, a collection of can’t-win don’t-care, no-account strangers, the most faceless bunch to ever set foot in here. Two years ago, this room was electric with the likes of Henderson, Willie Randolph, Jack Clark, and Dave Winfield. Now, peopled by Velardes and Leyritzes, it’s got all the flavor of a bus station. Surveying the scene, Mattingly’s eyes say, “Can these guys really be Yankees?”

“Man, oh man, this is just so tough,” he says. “It hasn’t been like this since I was 13 playing for a Babe Ruth team. We were horrible. Awful. Plus, we had bad uniforms. Ugly green things. It was terrible.”

Mantle-Maris-Berra-Howard. Munson-Nettles-Jackson-Gossage. Those teams won because they were star-laden,yes, but also because they were blood-and-knuckles competitive. Year in, year out, they played as tough as pirates, tromping on good teams of lesser wills. Not so these Yankees. They give up before the first shot rings out.

“By the seventh inning we’re getting pounded again, or we’re down a run and we don’t expect to win, and you think, ‘This is another night we’re not going to get over the hill,’” he laments. “We’re not even making tough outs. . . . It’s really pretty ugly, to tell you the truth. What they need to do is get rid of anyone who doesn’t care. I take it home every night, and some guys just leave it. That ticks me off, to see a guy laughing and joking around when we lose. . . . You don’t want any of those kind of guys on your team.”

It is hard to say which is sadder, the dismantling of all this glorious tradition, or the desolation of Don Mattingly. Once the centerpiece of the gaudiest lineup in baseball, he is, for all intent and purposes, alone out there now. In ’88, he hit behind Henderson and Randolph, who, regardless of their averages, drew 100 walks apiece, and were constantly dancing off of first and third for him. Now, he hits behind Roberto Kelly, who walks about as often as Mario Andretti, and Steve Sax, an opposite-field hitter whom American League pitchers seem to have figured out.

“It was such a different situation with Rickey and Willie,” he says wistfully. “They put pressure on the pitcher. When there’s nobody out there, the pitcher doesn’t feel any tension. The only thing that’ll hurt him is a home run.”

The loss of Henderson and Randolph, both of whom Steinbrenner essentially gave away, is only the half of it, though. The other half is the subtraction of Clark and Winfield, who combined for 200 RBI behind Mattingly in ’88. In baseball, this is called protection, and without it you stand about as much chance as a stray blonde in a biker joint. In Mattingly’s first five full seasons, only four players hit more homers than he did (137); near the halfway point of this one, he has exactly five. And nobody in baseball had more RBI over that stretch (574); to date, he has 33. Thanks entirely to George’s machinations, the Yankees are dead last in the league in hitting, slugging, runs scored, total bases, and on-base percentage. And so the team that won more games than anyone else in the ’80s stands every chance of losing 105 this year. If this were any other kind of business, federal investigators would have been called in long ago and a conservator appointed.

None of which is to exempt Mattingly from blame, or to suggest for a moment that he exempts himself. His recent castigation of the team was the first of its kind, an outburst after a disastrous sweep in Boston during which manager Bucky Dent got canned and the wheels came off this abysmal club. By nature, Mattingly is unceasingly upbeat (read, deluded) about his teammates, and brutally hard on himself. Never mind that all the talent has gone elsewhere—to his mind, the losing this season is somehow his fault, his particular responsibility. On a team batting .240, it is not enough anymore to hit the ball hard and field his position flawlessly. He has to drive in every runner, though he hasn’t had a pitch to hit in weeks; he has to turn this team around, though no one has a clue what direction it’s headed in the first place; he has to take outfield practice, extra batting practice, more extra batting practice . . .

“I have no excuses for this year,” he says, despite the built-in excuse of a chronic back problem, which flared again this week. “You look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘You haven’t been getting it done, have you?’ I’ve swung at bad pitches, I haven’t been patient—there’s a whole lot of things I haven’t done. Naturally, you try to do too much, but I’m not even doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

He bites the sentence off, chewing on his self-acrimony. He is generally about as expressive as prairie grass, disclosing as little about himself as is humanly possible. But this year he’s been even quieter than usual, stewing in a broth of exasperation. “If you’re around him every day, you can tell,”says first base coach Mike Ferraro. “He has a lot of anxiety to succeed. He’s a very intense person, a perfectionist. Mantle was exactly the same. A quiet guy, but boy, you didn’t want to be anywhere near him when we lost.”

“I can tell you exactly where this season went south on him,” says Tony Kubek, the Yankees’ color man extraordinaire. “It was about a month ago in a game here against K.C. The Yankees are getting one-hit, 3–0, it’s the bottom of the ninth, they’ve got men on first and second and Mattingly up. [K.C. manager John] Wathan runs out and tells his reliever, ‘Do what we did to [Wade] Boggs last year—walk him. I don’t care if there’s no base open and he’s the tying run—put him on. He goes back to the dugout, [Steve] Farr throws Donnie a curve that just does break over the plate, and he hits it back into the right field seats. The next day, the word goes out around the league: ‘There’s nobody else on this team that can beat you—do not pitch to Mattingly. I don’t think he’s had a ball to drive since.”

For the last six years Don Mattingly has simply been the best player in baseball. Over that stretch, he is first in the majors in total RBIs, third in hits, fourth in BA, fifth in HRs. He’s won a batting title, an MVP, five Gold Gloves, set a consecutive-game home run streak, has been the AP Player of the Year three times running and an All-Star every season. He didn’t get here on talent—not, at any rate, the sort of head-turning talent with which superstars are usually favored: the blinding bat speed, for instance, of Canseco, or the magic eyes of Ted Williams. No, Mattingly is the first self-made Great Yankee, a 19th-round draft pick from Evansville, Ind., who, through the alchemy of smarts and desire, turned modest gifts into exquisite skills.

“Don Mattingly’s the best first baseman I’ve ever seen,” Kubek says, “because he practices harder than most guys play. Intensity pays in the game, and Donnie’s focused from the minute he gets to the ballpark. Offensively, defensively, he’s just so tuned in. It’s his mental sharpness more than anything that makes him so special.”

Mattingly’s hitting coach, Darrell Evans, agrees. “A lot of guys work hard. The great ones work smart, know themselves backwards and forwards. I saw that in Atlanta, with [Hank] Aaron, and in Detroit, with [Alan] Trammel. Other guys may realize their potential, but the Mattinglys exceed theirs.”

Baseball people extol the work habits of Dave Stewart and such, but no one in the sport puts in the hours Mattingly does. He grew up in the mirror, emulating his hero, Rod Carew—hands back, knees bent in that old man’s crouch—and has been perfecting and refining the stroke practically every day since. Like a guy with a vintage car, he always has it up on the blocks, sweating the little things like the set of his shoulders, the tilt of his hips.

But something has gone wrong with his swing this year that no amount of tinkering has fixed. Jumping at the bait of that enormous contract he signed in April (five year, $19.3 million), he has tried to be the savior of this team. Instead of taking what the league is giving him and lining the away pitch to left, he is contorting himself, trying to jerk it into the short porch in right. That is breaking faith with his one commandment to himself, to hit the ball hard, and never mind where it goes.

“Donnie had fallen into some pretty bad habits before I got here,” says Evans, who came over as hitting instructor when Champ Summers was fired with Dent. “Normally, he’s the most patient hitter in baseball, but this year he’s just lunging at balls. I guess it’s easy enough to see why.”

That it is, though not without a little history. In ’88 when Mattingly signed his last contract (three years, $6.7 million), he got off to his habitual slow start and was roundly savaged by Steinbrenner for “lacking leadership,” George’s code word for wimpishness. The belittlement stunned and ate away at Mattingly, and at the All-Star break he exploded, telling the national press that he’d never “gotten it [respect] around here.” A hideous snit between the two ensued; for days, the back pages were bloody with George’s threats to trade him.

The whole business deeply embarrassed Mattingly, who is, as Kubek describes him, “Yankee class from head to toe—and I mean the kind you don’t see around here anymore.” Whether Mattingly knows it or not, he is surely trying to pre-empt another strike by George, flexing muscles he doesn’t have, breaking his back to be The Man. It is an old, old story—Steinbrenner signing someone to a fat contract, then promptly and publicly impugning his manhood—but it is the last time we shall see it play out here. None but the lame (Pascual Perez) and desperate Dave LaPoint will take his money anymore, though the Mark Langstons will of course be happy to use him shamelessly to drive their price up elsewhere. Money is money, and every owner in baseball has it. What George has frittered away is the only capital that mattered: the cachet of being a Yankee.

It spoke to Mattingly this spring—”It would kill me if I left and two or three years later the Yankees won”—just as it had spoken to Reggie Jackson 15 years before him, and 50 years before Reggie, to a strapping architecture student named Lou Gehrig. “Just putting on a Yankee uniform gave you confidence,” Gehrig once said. ”It made you better than you actually were.” The pride of the Yankees was no insubstantial thing; it was the team’s precious equity, built up over time by a succession of the greatest men ever to play this game. Now it is gone, squandered by the little man from Tampa, and New Yorkers are immeasurably poorer for it. They cling to Don Mattingly, cheering even his pop flies and groundouts, because he is the last Yankee, and he is all they have left.

[Illustration from the 1986 Sports Illustrated Baseball Preview issue]

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