By Jason Keidel
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Though the ‘80s are known for cinematic atrocities (name three great films from the decade), big hair, break dancing, graffiti, Yuppies, and painful music videos from sports teams (Super Bowl Shuffle comes to mind), there was one small slice of the commercialization of culture that caught New York’s attention.
Posters. We all had them. Whether you loved Doc Gooden’s visage soaring from the flank of a skyscraper, or Air Jordan’s soaring scissor-kick – or Christie Brinkley musing over a boy’s bed – it was impossible to walk into a young man’s room in 1985 and not find at least one wall lathered with these billboards.
And one locally famous mutation framed Don Mattingly as “The Hitman” – the decade’s first baseman nonpareil wrapped in a zoot suit, clutching his bat like a Tommy gun, while an open violin case at his feet housed a row of baseballs as though they were ammo. If you are a native New Yorker who came of age in the ‘80s then you had that poster, or at least knew two kids who did.
It didn’t last as long as it should have, but for a few years – just a wink in the interminable endurance of baseball – Don Mattingly was the best baseball player on the planet. There were a few arguments stewing in the five boroughs back then (Larry or Magic? Michael or Prince?), and New Yorkers barked at each other over the premier first baseman in New York City. Mattingly or Hernandez?
Simply, Mex had the better career; The Hitman was the better player. Sadly, Mattingly has the toxic moniker of best Yankee never to win a World Series. (A balky back is the only reason Mattingly is not in Cooperstown.) And even when he came back to coach during the dynasty, a ring never found his finger.
Most New Yorkers wanted Mattingly to fill the chasmal void Joe Torre left behind in 2007. It seemed flawless, a New York icon wearing his only uniform, bearing the very number he retired, bagging the ring that eluded him for fifteen years. The Knicks might fight the same urge someday when Patrick Ewing comes knocking.
(In the interest of honesty, I was about the only Yankees fan who pined for Tony Pena, the lone man to lead the Royals to a winning record in almost two decades, and who won AL Manager of the Year in 2003. Turned out that Pena didn’t have enough pinstripes in his heritage to land the job.)
Girardi was fired from his first managerial gig despite stewarding the Marlins to a surprisingly good record, and Pena was a long shot. So the city looked longingly and lovingly toward No. 23. After losing by a neck, Mattingly finished his apprenticeship under palm trees and Torre in Chavez Ravine.
And there was the unwritten axiom that only catchers can handle a pitching staff, that squatting for all those years imbued former backstops with otherwise unattainable knowledge, a long view of the game that only comes from home plate.
Not so much. The Dodgers (30-14) are hitting like they were still in Brooklyn and pitching as though they hopped though a time portal to their halcyon years in Southern California. Going into Wednesday’s game against Arizona, the Dodgers’ front three starters, Clayton Kershaw, Ted Lily, and Chris Capuano were 15-2, and Capuano was the staff stiff, with a 2.25 ERA.
Mattingly has squeezed 14 saves out of Kenley Janson (who?) and Javy Guerra (huh?). And while the usual suspects are ripping the rawhide off the baseball, Andre Ethier (.321, 9 HR, 40 RBI) and Matt Kemp (.359 , 12 HR 28 RBI) aren’t alone anymore.
Los Angeles recently morphed into the media’s athletic epicenter. Thumb through Sports Illustrated and about half the magazine is dedicated to the proposition that L.A. is the spot for sports, despite the fact that both basketball teams were just bounced from the playoffs and their best squad skates for a living. No doubt Compton is a hockey town!
But if L.A. is all that then why don’t they have a pro football team? Nothing ratifies a city’s sporting bona fides like the NFL shield. Buffalo, Jacksonville, and Nashville have teams but America’s second-largest market doesn’t? Southern California cares about baseball, but comparing it to New York City is a little silly. Don Mattingly, who would have died for the job five years ago, knows this. And you know that the Yankees are at the top of Donnie Baseball’s bucket list.
Not to mention L.A. is just too trendy and synthetic for man of Mattingly’s work ethic, his blue-collar ethos squeezing every ounce of blood and stretching every strain of talent to make himself a beast despite his slow-running, low-gravity game.
Joe Girardi will be fired someday, because that’s what happens here. If Joe Torre, the avuncular skipper with six pennants and the press in his pocket, can get canned, then Girardi, who makes Torre look like Santa Claus, can surely find his muscular frame back in the broadcast booth.
Before you pound your keyboard, I’m not calling for Girardi’s head, nor am I saying he can’t manage the Yankees to another title. I’m echoing the obvious, that the Yankees, as a team, as a brand, are an impatient lot when it comes to winning. And, fairly or not, the water gets dirty in the Big Apple’s fishbowl if you don’t win for a while.
As 2009 recedes deeper into the history books, we’ll regurgitate Janet Jackson’s mantra: What have you done for me lately? When Joe Girardi can no longer answer that question to Hal and Hank’s satisfaction, their first phone call should be to Donnie Baseball.
Hitman and the Bronx, reunited? Will it eventually happen? Let Keidel know in the comments below…