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Don Mattingly: Sane Man in an Insane World (A Hall of Nearly Great Excerpt)

As I posted a couple of weeks back, I had the honor to participate in an e-book project called The Hall of Nearly Great. That book, which features a great many writers more talented, famous, and attractive than I am or ever will be, is now out and available for purchase.Herewith, a couple of short excerpts from my chapter on Don Mattingly, which focuses on how his career was a fragile bubble that somehow occurred despite taking place during George Steinbrenner's most out-of-control years.

At this time, it seemed as if Mattingly could do almost anything on a baseball field. In 1986, the Yankees experienced an odd situation in which every third baseman in the organization was momentarily injured. Mattingly volunteered to play the hot corner. This would be unremarkable except that left-handed throwers never play third base; their glove is on the wrong hand. Nevertheless, Mattingly started two games at third. He was brilliant.

Yet, despite all of Mattingly's accomplishments, Steinbrenner did his best to maintain an antagonistic relationship with one of the greatest players in team history. When, in June 1985, Steinbrenner ordered the team to go through one of his pointlessly punishing off-day workouts, Mattingly, then in the midst of his MVP campaign, had the temerity to complain mildly: "Guys need a day off sometimes. We don't get any. Having a break, getting a chance to get your head together, could be more helpful than a workout."

Steinbrenner blasted back in the papers: "If he's tired of working out, that's too damned bad. He ought to get a real job, be a taxi driver or steelworker and find out what life and hard work are all about. I'm getting fed up with his attitude. Last year I thought he was the all-American boy, but now I'm not so sure." And after Mattingly's great 1986 season, when the Yankees were foolish enough to take the best player in baseball to arbitration, Steinbrenner again exploded: "The monkey is clearly on his back... I'll expect him to carry us to a World Series championship . . . . He's like all the rest of them now. He can't play little Jack Armstrong of Evansville, Indiana. He goes into the category of modern-player-with-agent looking for the bucks. Money means everything to him."

George Steinbrenner was, perhaps, not an unintelligent man, but he was arguably baseball-stupid and most certainly people-stupid, always doing his utmost to undermine and antagonize those talented people who were most likely to help him. Mattingly had the right attitude about Steinbrenner, at least most of the time-"I don't mind George," he said. "Sometimes I kind of like his little mind games."-but even with Mattingly's nonchalance in the face of bluster, given Steinbrenner's prejudices against young players it was a miracle that he got to play at all.

***

...There was still time for one last bit of the old Yankees screw. Though Steinbrenner had been "permanently suspended" from baseball for his decision to pay a gambler for information that would be embarrassing to Dave Winfield, the team still adhered to his boys' school-style dress code: no long hair, no beards. In August 1991, Mattingly was fined and benched by manager Stump Merrill. The reason: his hair was too long.

Mattingly's powers might have diminished, but he was still Don Mattingly, the team captain, the most beloved, most marketable player on a team in dire straits-1990 and 1991 were both 90-loss seasons and the worst showings

by the team since 1913. There was simply no reason to make a public issue of the fact that his mullet had grown beyond collar-length. And yet, there it was, the nonsensical event. In other words, Steinbrenner was still running the team.

Mattingly, the career Yankee, asked for a trade. Rumor had it that the club was seriously considering obliging him. "I'm overwhelmed by the pettiness of it," Mattingly told reporters after the benching. "Maybe I don't belong in the organization anymore... Maybe this is their way of saying we don't need you anymore." Asked about his captaincy, he said, "They should take that away. It doesn't mean anything. Take it. It's been stripped. I've been impeached."

It was actually the second time that season that Mattingly had asked for a trade. "The Yankees said they had a five-year plan. I didn't have five years." A talk-radio firestorm erupted, with seemingly the entirety of New York calling the team's handling of the matter clueless. Embarrassed, the organization backed down in every way. As Jack Curry reported in the New York Times, "Though Mattingly did not get a haircut, he agreed to be trimmed soon... The Yankees softened their position on the dress and grooming code and said there was no pressure on Mattingly or other players to get haircuts. They also said any future disciplinary matters would be handled privately and rescinded a $250 fine that had been assessed to Mattingly." "I haven't been a problem guy and that's why it hurt me to be treated this way," Mattingly said. "I definitely didn't need this."