Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Why Mattingly Still Matters

When the Yankees begin defense of their 27th championship on April 4, it will mark the 15th season since Don Mattingly last played professional baseball.

This statement is not meant to make you feel sad and old, though I suspect that outcome is possible. Take solace in the fact that Father Time manhandles us all ... unless you're Derek Jeter, in which case you destroy Father Time, then go to Chili's with Minka Kelly.

I bring up Mattingly because 15 years seems like an appropriate amount of time to re-examine his legacy, a legacy that seems to be shifting as we creep further from that Game 5 in the Kingdome.

It's probably unnecessary to explain on a Yankees blog what made Mattingly so great, because those that saw him know how special he was. In his truncated prime, Mattingly was the best hitter (and fielder) in baseball, once driving in 145 runs when that didn't automatically mean you were sharing a bathroom stall with Jose Canseco.

How he played, and how he carried himself as he did it, made Mattingly an idol to countless kids like me. Mattingly was unquestionably the most popular Yankee of his era, New York's answer to Larry Bird in Boston, only with a better mustache. The link of Yankee Mystique™ was as follows: Your grandfather had Joe D, your dad had The Mick, and you had Donnie Baseball.

A treasonous back robbed Mattingly of what was a certain Hall of Fame career, but a decline in production never changed how people felt about him. He retired as a Yankee legend, a player with no rings but a lifetime of goodwill.

Of course, the only thing worse than Mattingly's back was his timing. The year after the Hitman went home to Evansville, the Yankees won the World Series. Even Mattingly himself would later admit that this "kinda sucked." He wasn't wrong.

The Yankees' transformation in the Jeter Era brought with it a change in culture, as the Steinbrenner Doctrine -- anything short of a championship is considered failure -- took hold.

Retroactively, this mission statement casts Mattingly's career in an unflattering light.

Success can spoil any fanbase. Look at New England Patriots fans, who booed Tom Brady in the first quarter of a Wild Card game. Yankee Universe is hardly immune to this phenomenon; when the Bombers failed to qualify for the postseason in 2008, there was panic on River Avenue. Give fans a taste of success and we want another. Give us more, and we want it all.

With a Cooperstown call doubtful and no World Series glory to re-run endlessly on YES, time and perception threatens to box Mattingly in as little more than the best player in an era of average Yankee teams. But boiling down his iconography to that basic level would be unfair to both Mattingly and those who revered him.

He was an idol who understood what it meant to be one. In a time when clowns like Clemens, McGwire, and, yes, A-Rod make it seem like hero worship of an athlete is a lost cause, Mattingly remains a symbol of why that will never be true.

This post was featured as part of the LoHud Yankees Blog "Pinch Hitters Series" on Jan. 22. Dan Hanzus can be reached via e-mail at dhanzus@gmail.com. Follow Dan on Twitter at danhanzus.

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