I understand making the case for Don Mattingly as the unluckiest man on the planet is flawed on several levels.
Facts are facts, after all. He had a successful career as a professional baseball player, blessed with unique physical gifts that made him a multi-millionaire. His exploits on the field and humility off it made him a revered icon of the most decorated franchise in sports. He has three healthy children. He probably drives a Saab. The list goes on and on.
But when the Yankees passed on Mattingly to hire Joe Girardi as their new manager in December, true Donnie Baseball fans knew another chapter had been written in a story that too often has been star-crossed.
It wasn't just that Mattingly was the favorite to become the 34th manager of the Yankees -- the entire interview process seemed to be a mere formality. Four seasons earlier, it was Mattingly who had been handpicked by George Steinbrenner and tutored under Joe Torre to become the future Yankees skipper. It was a carefully scripted ascention to power, and the club followed it step by step until, of course, the time came to actually hand the reigns over. Torre's split from the club became bitter, and some in the organization began to view Mattingly as a sort of "Torre clone" -- a laid-back non-confrontational type who didn't have the edge to see the team through difficult times, particularly in October. Torre's measured approach to managing -- a style that helped guide New York to four titles and 12 straight playoff berths -- was suddenly out of vogue under the new Steinbrenner regime.
Enter Joe Girardi -- square jaw, crew cut, and said not to possess not an ounce of bullshit -- carrying a resume that included a Manager of the Year award for leading a young Marlins team to playoff contention in 2006. Nevermind the fact that he was fired at season's end for clashing with management, or that he had a bad reputation among some peers and the local media for a terse know-it-all attitude. "This man was stern!" Hank and Hal likely squealed in delight as a morose George sat meekly in the garden. In the eyes of the young Steinbrenners, the only thing separating the Yankees from first-round failure and World Series glory was a good kick in the ass. Right! Right?
To Girardi's credit, he aced his interview by all accounts. And with The Boss obstenibly out of the picture, Mattingly lost the front-office ally that mattered most. Talk about Girardi's expert pitch to club officials all you want, but this decision came down to timing. It was right for Girardi, and it cost Mattingly.
But hasn't bad timing always been the case for Mattingly? He came into the league in 1982, one season after the Yankees advanced to the World Series. New York then proceeded to suffer through its longest playoff drought in team history. By 1994, Mattingly's career was winding down, chronic back pain having rendered him a shell of the player once viewed as a surefire Hall of Famer.
When the strike wiped out the '94 season with the Yankees sitting atop the AL East in mid-August, Mattingly's postseason plight became a national story. "Good old classy Don Mattingly just saw his only chance at the World Series go by the boards. What a cryin' shame!" Even the most optimistic Mattingly fan had to worry.
But a sliver of fortune arrived a year later when the Yankees made the playoffs as baseball's first American League Wild Card. New York clinched in Toronto on the final day of the regular season, Mattingly going down on one knee and pounding the Sky Dome turf in joy after the final out was recorded. I still have MSG's postgame coverage on an old VHS tape, the image of a joyful Donnie running to the visitor's clubhouse, bats in one hand, glove tucked under his opposite arm, smiling like a little boy on Christmas. It was perfect.
Mattingly seized his once-in-a-career opportunity. Knowing his days in pinstripes were numbered, Mattingly treated his chronic back pain as an afterthought in what would be his only postseason, swinging like the perennial All-Star he used to be. Using a leg kick that generated more torque in his swing, Mattingly batted .405 in the series with a homer and five RBIs. Standing in the back row of the bleachers when his name was announced at the Stadium before Game 1, I had goosebumps that lasted minutes. When he hit a two-run homer off Andy Benes into those same bleachers in Game 2, I watched on television with tears in my eyes. It's not something I'm ashamed of. It was a touchstone moment of my childhood, a moment I'll never forget.
The Yankees fell in five games to the Mariners in a classic series, a devastating final chapter to Mattingly's playing days. With his contract up and under the realization the Yankees were looking in another direction -- Steinbrenner made that clear with cowardly leaks to the press -- he graciously gave the team an out, announcing he would not try to catch on with another team in 1996. It wasn't a retirement speech, because Mattingly didn't want to retire. But when the Yanks traded for Tino Martinez, Mattingly's future as a Yankee was sealed. He officially retired in 1997, his truncated career still impressive enough to put him near the top of several offensive categories in franchise history.
Everyone knows what came next. With Mattingly back home with his family in Indiana, the Yankees captured the World Series in 1996. And again in 1998. And again in 1999. And once more in 2000. It makes those titles forever bittersweet for any true Mattingly fan. He was out of the money again. In interviews, he always insisted that the timing didn't sting, but it's hard to imagine the competitor in him not dying a little bit each time the team celebrated another championship.
Mattingly rejoined the Yankees as a hitting coach in 2004, a historic collapse against the Red Sox that lives in on infamy in the franchise's history. And despite rave reviews for his talents as a teacher, the Yankees went on to suffer through a trio of embarassing first-round playoff knockouts. Even as a coach, Donnie Baseball couldn't make it to the World Series.
Of course, it would have been too perfect, too easy for Mattingly to get the Yanks skipper job and get that long-elusive championship ring. Classy as always, Mattingly refused to rip the Yankees on his way out the door, even if he may have had every right to do so. Instead, he thanked New York and its fans for all they had done for him and he simply moved on. It was a gesture of humility, the act of a true leader and a captain.
A new season has begun, and for the first time since 2003, Mattingly is nowhere to be seen on the Yankees bench. Hoping to keep his managerial aspirations alive, he took a coaching job with Joe Torre's Dodgers club, only to step down when marriage troubles went public by way of an ugly incident in Evansville that ended with Kim Mattingly's arrest for public disturbance. One can only hope these private issues get resolved without further embarrassment.
When you grow up idolizing a sports figure, it's natural to keep tabs on them after you've grown up. Even as their playing days fade from memory, that connection built over years remains hardwired in your brain. It's for that reason I'll always pull for Donnie Baseball, even if I don't have anything to tangibly "root for" anymore. We've never met, but the relationship is absolutely real and personal.
So wherever you are Donnie Baseball, I tip my cap to you. Fortune may not always be on your side, but I'm lucky to call you a true idol.