By Jason Keidel
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If you were born in the five boroughs in the late 1960s, choosing a local baseball team didn’t burn many brain cells. Unless you lived on the fumes of the ’73 World Series, then the ’70s belonged to the Yankees.
And Reggie Jackson was the most important player on the sport’s most important team. When you’re 8 years old and see someone on your favorite team bash three homers on three first pitches from three pitchers in the World Series, you’re not into the nuance of the larger narrative. Did anyone rushing the field after the game care that he played for Oakland before? Or the Orioles? Or the Angels after?
There’s nothing more nauseating than this “True Yankee” strife. It’s all subjective and rather silly. Who is the universal arbiter of such things? Must you play five or 10 years in the Bronx? And are you allowed to wear the blasphemous colors of another team?
In case we forget, Babe Ruth, Mr. Yankee, neither started nor ended his career with the Yankees. So what’s the qualification? What’s the metric to make sure his blood type is pinstripe?
Every few years we bang heads trying to brand the next new entrant into hallowed dirt behind the left field wall, where the plaques are buttressed like books, doubling as sacred, historical scrolls. If you don’t know who wore numbers 1 through 9 for the Bronx Bombers, then you’re not a baseball fan. Number 6 was just bronzed, and No. 2 will round out the single-digit deities of Yankee past.
But even through a most generous lens, it’s hard to assert that Tino Martinez is a bedrock member of Yankees royalty. When you’re not even the best or second-best first baseman in franchise history, it’s hard to declare that you belong in Monument Park — the most sacred soil south of Cooperstown.
Martinez is a true Yankee, but not an all-time Yankee.
He never hit .300, in any uniform. He never scored 100 runs. Never hit 40 doubles. Never amassed 200 hits in a season. In fact, his best season came in 1997, the one year the Yanks didn’t reach the Fall Classic during the dynasty. Martinez was even benched by Joe Torre during a World Series for Cecil Fielder, who was hardly Keith Hernandez in the field.
If it feels like I’m pounding on Martinez like a flat fastball, my apologies. Martinez had a fine career, and handled himself with the requisite nobility of a Yankees icon. He just didn’t play like one. His defining diamond moment came during the ’98 World Series, the mammoth grand slam late in Game 1. San Diego never recovered, and the Yanks capped the greatest season in MLB history — 125 wins.
But when we take the universal “smell test” Martinez doesn’t spring up like three cherries. That doesn’t make him any less of a player or person; he’s just not an immortal, which warps our modern sensibilities because we need a new God every few weeks, from music to movies to athletics.
Maybe I’m a hypocrite. Maybe it’s the very bias I find in this generation. Maybe I see Goose and Reggie through a preteen prism, when all athletes were spawned by some sacred cornfield in Iowa. Maybe Tino was just as good.
Goose Gossage, who also just had his bust bronzed and speared into the Bronx soil, and Reggie Jackson are Hall of Famers. Tino Martinez is not. Neither is Don Mattingly. But he would have been had his balky back not truncated his bejeweled career.
Halls of Fame are supposed to speak to exclusivity, a high iconic orbit with only enough air for a very microscopic few. And if Cooperstown is supposed to be selective, what about the Yankees?
Say what you will about the current team or Aura and Mystique returning to their respective strip clubs. Indeed, even I wrote an article last year calling the Cardinals America’s team. And I stick with that declaration.
But the Yankees are a roll call of immortality. Just take jersey numbers 3 through 7. When Joe Torre, who managed in six World Series and won four, is the hobo of the horde, then you’re talking about unmatched royalty, the highest rung, the definitive strata of stats and rings and history books coated in pinstripes.
Does that sound like Martinez? Sadly, it does not. Which is a shame, because if you watched him toss that first pitch this week, it looked like he could still play at a very high level. His level was just never high enough for Monument Park.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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