It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when the New York Yankees weren’t the world’s ultimate juggernaut.
There was a time when they weren’t the Evil Empire, an all-encompassing Goliath that ruled free agency with an iron fist and gobbled up all of baseball’s biggest stars. I know…it’s tough to break out the violin and play a song for the 27-time champions. But hear me out.
I’m talking about a time when beloved play-by-play man Phil Rizzuto left the games early so he could get home for dinner. “I’m coming, Cora!” he’d announce over the airwaves. A time when Don Mattingly tracked a fly ball into the stands and snagged some popcorn from a kid in the front row.
Eighteen years ago, the Yankees were mediocre has-beens. They hadn’t won a championship since 1978, and their beloved first baseman had never even played an inning in the postseason. Mattingly was the hero of that age, with his signature eye black and sweet splintering swing.
Though he was arguably the best player in baseball over a four or five-year stretch, Mattingly was also the game’s hardest-luck loser. He was the face of the Yankees, but also worn on his face was baseball age and the repeated disappointment of coming up short.
His 1985 Yankees won 97 games, but finished two games behind the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East and missed the playoffs. New York would win 90 games in ’86, but finished behind the Boston Red Sox and again, missed the playoffs.
And, despite a brilliant career that included six All-Star game appearances, nine Gold Glove awards and an MVP, Donnie Baseball never got a taste of October baseball. His number would end up in Monument Park alongside Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio, but his circumstances were his tragic flaw.
The early 1990’s were a simpler time, before the YES Network and the new Yankee Stadium, and the over-commercialization of sports that has seemingly spiraled out of control.
I grew up in that era, and even though its simplicity is cemented in my mind by peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and playing Super Mario World before school, it’s furthered on by the plight of the Yankees. I don’t remember a whole lot about those early ’90s Yankees teams, but I remember being devastated by the strike in ’94, especially with my beloved Yanks in first place for the first time in my lifetime.
In 1995, everything seemed to be changing. The Yankees won the A.L. East with a 79-65 record in a strike-shortened 144 game season. They were heading to the playoffs for the first time in decades, and though Mattingly’s back had betrayed him, he had one last shot at a championship.
Back then, Yankees fans were desperately rooting for Mattingly to win a title. And not in the greedy way that they incredulously agonize over an ALCS no-show in their 17th playoff appearance in the last 18 years. It was more genuine back then, more life-and-death than it is now.
See, in 1995, the Yankees were actually the sentimental favorites. And for a young Yankees fan growing up in Thomaston, it was about to get sentimental.
The Yankees and Mariners met in a classic, five-game best of-five division series, a battle of two teams who appeared ready to challenge for the A.L. crown. New York captured the first two games at the Stadium, and they needed just one win in three games at the Kingdome to advance to the ALCS. But the Mariners, as they annoyingly called it, “refused to lose.” They took games 3 and 4 in Seattle, forcing a winner-take-all Game 5. The Yankees led 5-4, heading into the bottom of the 11th inning, and then…well, this happened.
I cried when Ken Griffey Jr. came racing around the bases and slid into home in Game 5, effectively ending Mattingly’s playoff dreams. Donnie Baseball retired that offseason, and the Yankees resumed their dynastic ways, capturing the 1996 title and winning four of the next five championships.
Even when Mattingly returned to the Yankees bench as a coach in 2003, his dark cloud of impossibly bad luck hovered over Yankee Stadium. The Yanks lost to the Marlins in the World Series that year, and failed to return to the Fall Classic until 2009, when of course they won the title, one year after Mattingly left the Bronx for a job with Joe Torre and the Dodgers.
I was reminded of Mattingly’s intensity last night, when he got into it with Diamondbacks coach Allen Trammell, pummeling him to the ground in one of the greatest manager brawls of all-time. (Mark McGwire, Kirk Gibson, and Matt Williams were also involved. It was like Super Smash ‘Em Bros.–baseball legends style).
And even though base-brawls like that seem to occur less and less frequently, Mattingly’s role in it seemed a fitting throwback to a simpler time, when such an altercation couldn’t be complicated by live SportsCenter filibustering and Twitter.
So, here’s to the ’90s.
Here’s to Phil Rizzuto, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and going to school instead of going to work.
Here’s to Don Mattingly.
Even though he never won anything.