Some years ago, my friend Ted’s lung collapsed. He sent me a text from the emergency room waiting area, but he didn’t tell me about his lung, or that he was struggling to breath, or even that he was at the hospital. Instead he watched the Yankees game and wroteonly, “Don Mattingly shaved his mustache?!?!”
Ted, like me, was born in the early 80s and grew up near New York City. Before we knew anything else about baseball – before we realized that these particular Yankees might not be the best team there was, before I had figured out whether Yogi Berra was indeed named after Yogi Bear, before Ted had ever heard of Joe DiMaggio – we knew that Don Mattingly was awesome.
And he was, of course… even if he wasn’t quite so surpassingly awesome as I assumed as a seven-year-old in 1989. He is not in the Hall of Fame and probably should not be, although I still feel guilty typing that. I would not call Mattingly’s career a tragic one by any stretch, but there is a tinge of sadness to it that the superstars on either side of him didn’t have – Reggie Jackson, say, or Derek Jeter. His back betrayed him, cut his career short, and kept him out of the Hall – or so I’ll insist to this day. (Every time that he struggled after his peak, every failed at-bat, I never once chalked it down to anything besides his back). Meanwhile, his one playoff series ended in a crushing loss, and he retired just before the Yankees’ ring-a-palooza kicked off in 1996. That’s what I was sad about, in 1995: “we” had let Mattingly down. He was supposed to go out in a well-deserved blaze of glory, not tearing up in the Kingdome. I still view this as a major script-writing failure on somebody’s part. On top of that, though Mattingly never said a word about it during or after his career, a few years ago it became clear that he must have been dealing with some tough issues off the field as well. You never would have known.
Still, there was that sense with Mattingly, which there mostly isn’t with today’s Yankee stars, that you needed to defend or protect him – it wasn’t his fault, I was sure, not anything that went wrong, and I was very concerned that he he knew that. Other fans felt the same way. Don Mattingly’s back went out for our sins.