Oh man, am I torn.
I always had a feeling something like this would happen, and now it appears as if it may.
Hey, I like and respect Joe Torre. And anybody who has read my blog knows that I think the guy got about as raw a deal from George Steinbrenner and the Yankees’ brass as anybody in The Boss’ blustery tenure.
But now it looks like the leading candidate to replace Torre is Don Mattingly.
And for me, that’s great.
Every kid who grows up playing baseball has a favorite ballplayer. But for every kid who thinks working on game-time situations in baseball practice is the greatest thing since the annual arrival of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, well, having a favorite ballplayer is something different entirely.
It’s the root of fanaticism. Of hero worship. Of idolatry.
And for me, the diminutive middle infielder who could barely hit his weight but could bunt his butt off, my guy was Donald Arthur Mattingly, New York Yankees first baseman. No. 23 in pinstripes, No. 1 in my heart.
I was that kid. In my room growing up, two of my walls were dedicated to Donnie Baseball. Posters, Beckett Baseball Card magazines. Newspaper clippings. Cards. T-shirts. Anything and everything Mattingly, it went up on the walls.
I can’t explain this. Honestly, I can’t. It should have been Ryne Sandberg. It could have been Mark Grace. I’m a Cubs fan, one in a generation that was brought up on WGN and Harry Caray and 2 p.m. summer baseball games on 24-channel cable systems. That was me.
But it was Mattingly who did it for me.
I can try to explain it, but I don’t ever get very far. I didn’t play first, though I did always play infield as a kid. But I was right-handed, and I sure as heck didn’t hit with the kind of thunder the Hit Man did before a back injury brought both him and me to tears. And I was never big enough to wear No. 23 on my back, not with little league jerseys being sized according to number.
But I did hit left-handed. That came from my dad, who, after a rather ignominious senior year of high school baseball at the plate, turned lefty for the first time in a playoff doubleheader and started clobbering the ball, even belting a home run.
His coach told him never to bat right-handed again, and when I came along, dad was foresighted enough to teach me the game from the left side. With a whiffle tee ball set, dad made sure I batted from the left side from the time I was 3, knowing that once kids started to throw curve balls, the ball would break into the strike zone to me. Not only wouldn’t I be scared, I’d be able to hit. This actually worked for a time and helped me onto a couple of all-star teams.
And I can remember one time in high school, struggling badly with the bat, eschewing my stand-up batting stance for one like Mattingly’s low crouch, the one that eventually wrecked his lower back and derailed his rocket ride to Cooperstown. Leaning back into that crouch, moving my left shoulder back and down toward the catcher, I saw the ball a split-second longer and actually started making contact again.
Donnie Baseball was there for me, all along.
And now, more than 15 years later, he’s back in my life. He was the bench coach for Torre last season after serving as the Yankees’ hitting coach for three years. But in those roles, the pressure wasn’t ever on my guy, and the Yankees’ success or lack thereof didn’t necessarily have anything to do with him.
The Yankees are the Evil Empire now, though, which they weren’t when Mattingly was playing there. They are the towering symbol of all that is wrong with baseball’s economic structure. They are the franchise that accepts winning and nothing else. While that always sounds good on paper, it translates to a sour climate that has no real joy, only frustration at anything short of a championship and mere relief when it all comes together. What fun is in that? Who wants to be a part of that?
Except Mattingly may soon be the focal point of that monster. Should he get the job, every single little thing he says and every single little move he makes will be debated, dissected and, possibly, destroyed.
While Mattingly may be willing and able to take that kind of incessant heat, I’m not sure I can, and I’m not even a fan of the Yankees. It’s something deeper, really, something a shrink could probably have fun with.
What it comes down to is that I don’t want my favorite player to look bad. Not ever. It doesn’t matter that Mattingly is just a ballplayer, a guy I’ve never met who, for all I know, might in reality be the biggest jerk the world has ever known (although that’s unlikely, what with Barry Bonds still around). Why I should care about Don Mattingly’s legacy or reputation, I don’t know. I just know that I do. I imagine Mickey Mantle fans, cognizant now of Mantle’s alcoholism and his womanizing, feel the same way. Something you held dear from your childroom gets shaken, and when you look back, it all feels so phony, like such a colossal waste of time.
With Donnie Baseball at the helm, I realize that it would be his best shot at getting that elusive ring, and knowing my luck, it would come against the Cubs. But while it could mean undeniable glory for my main man, I also understand that the Yankees could destroy him, and that would get to me.
At the same time, I realize that I could never truly root against the Yankees.
At least not until they ran my guy out of town on a rail like they did Torre.
And then I would hate them, hate them like I’ve never hated anything in my life, and that would include the St. Louis Cardinals.
And so you could say I’m torn.
After all, I’m the guy who, at 23 years old, named his beagle puppy Mattingly in 1999.