Tuesday, October 20, 2009
The Curse of Donnie Baseball: Believe It!
How could the Dodgers blow this? They were one out away from evening the series at 2 apiece and going back to L.A. for Game 5. How? How? How?!?
Silly Dodger fans, do they not know of the Curse of Donnie Baseball?
No, they don't. Most Yankee Fans don't know about it, either. Those who do know about it refuse to admit it exists, for it means that Don Mattingly, their idol while growing up in the Eighties and Nineties, is a gigantic jinx.
I have often said that I don't believe in curses, jinxes and ghosts... except when it comes to sports. I did not invent the Curse of Donnie Baseball, I am merely the prophet who brings its dark word to the nonbelievers, whether they like it or not.
As far as I know, I am the first person ever to write about it publicly. I even created a Wikipedia entry for it. I put it up in 2005, but it's long since been taken down. I guess the Wikimedia guys didn't think there was enough evidence for it. But a few scraps of it survive, cited by others who think there might be such a Curse.
There is a Cult of St. Donald Arthur of Evansville. You can go to Yankee Stadium and spew forth the vilest of imprecations at Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, even at the imperfect saint that is Thurman Munson. But say that Don Mattingly is not all that Yankee Fans claim him to be, and you will be subjected to the kind of abuse that usually only occurs between college football fans during Rivalry Week.
Yankee broadcaster Michael Kay is the high priest of this cult. On a number of occasions, he has said of Mattingly, "He might be the most beloved athlete in the history of New York sports."
Kay is usually smart, but this is the dumbest thing I've ever heard a sportscaster say. Has he never heard of Babe Ruth? Lou Gehrig? Joe DiMaggio? Mickey Mantle? Yogi Berra? Bobby Murcer (who at least won a Pennant in Pinstripes)? Thurman Munson? Reggie Jackson? Derek Jeter? Bernie Williams? Paul O’Neill? Mariano Rivera?
And that's just on the Yankees. What about Tom Seaver? Dwight Gooden? Jackie Robinson? Duke Snider? Gil Hodges? Willie Mays? Christy Mathewson? Mel Ott? Buck Ewing?
And that's just from baseball. What about Frank Gifford? Lawrence Taylor? Joe Namath? Walt Frazier? Patrick Ewing? Frank Boucher? Eddie Giacomin? Rod Gilbert? Mike Bossy? Denis Potvin? Mark Messier (though it pains me to admit it)? Brian Leetch? Martin Brodeur?
Donald Arthur Mattingly, of Evansville, Indiana, now 48 years of age, was a very talented baseball player. From 1984 to 1989, he was arguably the best player in the game. Then a back injury struck. He decided to retire after the 1995 season – well, sort of: He announced he would take 1996 off, and then decide whether to resume playing; ultimately, he decided not to.
Between the ages of 23 and 28, he was wonderful; from 29 to 34, he was a hard-working, courageous player still capable of the occasional moment of greatness. At 35, he was done. That's not a tragedy, but it is unfortunate.
He is respected around the game. A contemporary, Kirby Puckett, observed him taking extra batting practice, and gave him the nickname "Donnie Baseball." It seemed to fit. He was Captain of the Yankees. And, by all accounts, he’s a good man.
Please understand something here: I do not seek to disparage the man's character, nor deride his performance – when he was physically able to perform, that is.
But the record is clear: Don Mattingly is a loser, and any team that employs him is also a loser.
Facts can be interpreted any way you want, but their truths cannot be denied:
1981: The Yankees win the American League Pennant. This was their 4th Pennant, and 5th postseason berth, in the last 6 seasons.
1982: The Yankees call Mattingly up on September 6. He plays his first game on September 8, a 10-5 win over the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium. Mattingly was a defensive replacement in left field and did not bat. The Yankees finish 6th, winning only 79 games.
True, they were well out of the race well before this, so the fact of Mattingly's September callup at age 21 near the end of a wasted season is hardly enough on which to base an indictment. But the evidence continues.
1983: Mattingly has his 1st season of being more than a look-see at the end. The Yankees finish 3rd. No shame in that: The Orioles run away with the American League Eastern Division, and win the World Series.
1984: Mattingly wins the AL batting title with a .343 average, highest for a Yankee in 27 years. Teammate Dave Winfield is right behind him at .340. Mattingly has also become a spectacularly-fielding 1st baseman. The Yankees finish 3rd, as the Detroit Tigers run away with the Division and win the World Series. So far, no reason to suspect Mattingly of anything; after all, this is only his 1st full season with the team.
1985: Mattingly puts together a season that earns him the AL Most Valuable Player award. The Yankees have their best season between 1981 and 1996, and their 97 wins is the most they will get between 1980 and 1998. But it's not enough, as the Toronto Blue Jays clinch against them on the next-to-last day of the regular season.
Still no big deal: Plenty of players fall short in their 1st attempt at a real Pennant race.
1986: Mattingly sets a Yankee record with 238 hits in a season. But the Yankees finish 2nd again, 5½ games behind the hated Boston Red Sox. This is not good. But the Yanks had a lot of pitching problems the last 2 seasons. One more good starter in either would have made a world of difference, and this would be a very different blog entry. (The Curse of Dennis Eckersley? The Eck punishing the Dodgers for the Kirk Gibson walkoff, and that's why they haven’t won a Pennant since 1988?)
1987: Mattingly hits home runs in 8 consecutive games, tying a major league record. He also hits 6 grand slams in the season, setting a new record. But the Yankees finish 4th, 9 games behind the Tigers. Can’t blame Mattingly for that: The Yankees had injuries, particularly damaging were those to Willie Randolph and, to a lesser extent, Winfield.
1988: Another terrific year for Mattingly, but the Yankees finish 5th. Fifth! And it was the Red Sox winning the Division again! True, they were only 3½ games behind in a wild race that saw the 1st 4 teams (Boston, Detroit, Milwaukee and Toronto) all within 2 games.
But this is the 4th straight season in which the Yanks were close late, and didn't win. That had never happened before: Usually, the Yankees would either win the Pennant (or, from 1976 onward, the Division), or finish well behind the leaders. Of the 30 seasons between their first Pennant in 1921 and 1984, the Yankees were still in the race in mid-September in only 7 of them. Now they had 4 straight close calls, and nothing to show for them.
As Darth Vader would have said if h'’d been a baseball fan, "I find your lack of postseason play disturbing."
1989: Another very good year for Mattingly, but the Yankees collapse. Hardly any pitching. Dave Winfield is out for the entire season with a back injury. Another injury forces Ron Guidry to retire without appearing once this season. The most frustrating decade in team history is over. Can Mattingly be blamed? Surely not. All the evidence seen so far is merely circumstantial. Right? Right?
1990, 1991, 1992: The beginning of Mattingly's Captaincy, and all awful years for the Yankees, including what remains their only last-place finish in the last 43 years. They can't see contention with binoculars. And Mattingly's injuries render him pretty much useless. A great career appears to have been going down in flames.
1993: As ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast, my friend!" The rebuilt Yankees put together a fine season, and are tied with the Toronto Blue Jays on September 8. But it all falls apart again, and they finish 7 games back. Not Mattingly’s fault? He has his best season in 5 years. Yet again, it seems like the Yankees are one starter away. The bullpen needs some help, too. Mattingly is not the problem. Or, at least, he appears not to be.
1994: This was the season it was all going to come together. Mattingly's bat is partying like it's 1985. Paul O'Neill is on his way to becoming the 1st Yankee since Mattingly that year to win the batting title. Bernie Williams is coming into his own. Even the pitching has improved. On August 11, not only are they in first place by 6½ games over the Orioles, but they have the best record in the AL.
On August 12, the Major League Baseball Players Association goes on strike. On September 15, with the strike still unresolved, Commissioner Bud Selig cancels the remainder of the regular season, and the postseason.
The Yankees were not the only team hurt by this: The Chicago White Sox had probably their best team in 75 years, the Cleveland Indians were in their 1st Pennant race in 35 years, the Texas Rangers were in 1st place that late in the season for the 1st time in their 23-year history, the Montreal Expos had the best record in baseball and a shot at their 1st full-season postseason berth in their 36-year history, and the Colorado Rockies, in only their 2nd season of play, were just a game and a half behind the Dodgers for the NL West and a game behind the Houston Astros for the Wild Card. A lot of teams got screwed.
But there was a growing sense among Yankee Fans that this was Mattingly’s best chance, and that he might not get another one this good. Ever.
1995: A hard season for the Yankees. The Red Sox won the Division solidly. Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's Iron Man streak record. Mickey Mantle's final illness and death hung over the team like a dark cloud. Being asked to broadcast a game rather than go to Mickey's funeral led Phil Rizzuto to retire – as it turned out, an agreement was reached and he did one more season in '96. And the Yankees had more injuries, including Mattingly's bad back flaring up again.
But they managed to win the Wild Card, and, in the Division Series against the Seattle Mariners, Mattingly's 1st-ever postseason series in 14 years of trying, he batted .417 and hit 2 home runs, including an electrifying one that sent the crowd at The Stadium into an absolute frenzy. But when the Series went out to Seattle, the Mariners rode their own big crowds to come from 2 games to 0 back and win 3 straight and the series.
Mariner fans still like to brag about this series, partly because it inspired people to go to the polls next month and vote for the bond issue that funded the building of the hideous Kingdome's replacement, the much-more baseball-friendly Safeco Field; but partly because they beat the Yankees. They cling to 1995 the way rednecks cling to their guns and their religion (in that order). Mariner fans do not like to be reminded that the Yankees have since beaten them, not once, but twice, in 2000 and 2001, and in the League Championship Series, not just the Division Series.
"I have a hard time feeling bad about it," Mattingly said after the epic October 8, 1995 contest, the last in which he would ever play. A lot of Yankee Fans, however, still take this loss hard. It ensured that Don Mattingly would never play in a World Series. (And, adding this on a few days later, it occured to me how much Mattingly's "hard time feeling bad about it" resembles what Tom Glavine said after he bollixed up the Mets' chances in their 2007 regular season finale: "I'm not devastated.")
1996: Playing their 1st season without Mattingly since 1981, the last season in which they won the Pennant, the Yankees win the Pennant again, and the World Series. If it wasn't for the '95 ALDS, in which Mariner 1st baseman Tino Martinez hit well and reliever Jeff Nelson pitched well, the Yankees wouldn't have sent 3rd baseman Russ Davis and pitcher Sterling Hitchcock to the Mariners for Tino and Nellie. And if the Yankees had won that series, they probably still would have lost to the powerful Cleveland Indians in the ALCS. And it's likely that manager Buck Showalter, who has never won a Pennant anywhere he's managed (except in the minors), would have been kept. Joe Torre would never have managed the Yankees.
Put all that together, and do you think the Yankees would have won the World Series in 1996, '98, '99 and 2000? Isn't 4 World Series wins and 6 Pennants without Donnie Baseball better than 1 World Series appearance with him?
As Brian Kenny used to say on the ESPN Classic show The Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame... , Have I begun to change your mind yet? Are you now beginning to believe that larger forces are at work? Do you now see that Mattingly's presence did not help the Yankees win, and in fact hurt them?
No? You still ain't buyin' it? Okay, fine. Read on:
1997: On September 1, the Yankees retire Mattingly's uniform Number 23, and dedicate a Plaque in his honor that would rest in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. After the dedication ceremony, the Yankees lost an Interleague game to the Montreal Expos, the team many of us suspected they would have played in the 1994 World Series that never happened. The Yanks go on to finish 2nd to the Orioles, and it remained the last season in which the Yankees did not win at least the Division title until 2007.
1998: The Yankees begin a run of 5 Pennants in 6 seasons, ending with the Aaron Boone homer in the 2003 ALCS and the subsequent World Series defeat to the Florida Marlins. Through all of this, Mattingly was back home at his farm outside his home town of Evansville, Indiana, and had no active role with any baseball team, and appeared at Yankee Stadium once a season, on Old-Timers' Day. Mattingly no, October glory yes.
2004: Mattingly decides to get back into baseball, and is hired as the Yankees’ hitting instructor. The Yankees get within 3 outs of completing an ALCS sweep of the Red Sox for the Pennant. You know how this part of the story ends: The Sox "reverse the curse," the one involving Babe Ruth, and complete the greatest comeback in the history of baseball.
Can we blame Mattingly for this? Maybe, because the Yankee lineup seemed to lose a lot of steam after the 19-8 blowout in Game 3; after that, they barely hit at all. Five runs would have won Game 4, Game 5, or Game 6; instead, they got 4, 4 and 2, respectively. Game 7 was a blowout, more a pitching issue than a hitting one. But if Mattingly was such a good choice to be a hitting instructor, then he should have been able to give somebody the advice they needed to get that 5th run home in Game 4, 5 or 6.
Can we blame steroids? We know David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Bronson Arroyo were steroid users: The 1st 2 got caught (though that wasn't revealed until 2009), and the last confessed. Many of us also suspect Curt Schilling, Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon, Mark Bellhorn, Bill Mueller and Kevin Millar of using them.
This would seem to invalidate my Curse of Donnie Baseball theory, since it suggests that the Yankees would have won the Pennant without it, even with Mattingly in uniform. But the fact remains that the Yankees had Mattingly in uniform, and did not win the Pennant. So, even knowing what we know now, we have to accept the fact that the Yankees did not win.
2005: The Yankees win the Division, but lose the Division Series to the Anaheim Angels. And while the pitching wasn't very good, they also didn't hit much.
2006: The Yankees win the Division in a landslide, but lose the Division Series to the Detroit Tigers. And while the pitching wasn't very good, the hitting was practically nonexistent.
2007: The Yankees don't win the Division, the Red Sox do. The Yanks do manage to gain the Wild Card, but, again, their hitting in the Division Series against the Indians is pathetic. And, remember, their hitting instructor is Don Mattingly.
Afterward, Joe Torre was offered a weak new contract to manage, and resigned. He was hired to manage the Dodgers, and offered to take Mattingly with him, and Mattingly accepted.
There you have it. Between 1921 (their 1st Pennant) and 1981, and again from 1996 to 2003, a total of 69 seasons, the Yankees won 39 American League Pennants, or 56 percent of the available Pennants. In the 16 seasons in which Mattingly has been in a Yankee uniform (1982 to 1995 and 2004 to 2005), the Yankees have never won.
Even after the '96 World Series, the pattern did not escape my notice. And when in 2004, their 1st season with Mattingly in uniform since 1995, they blew the Pennant so spectacularly, I began to start telling people that Mattingly was a jinx, that there is a Curse of Donnie Baseball. In the ensuing 3 seasons, it only got worse.
That's what happened when Mattingly was in a Yankee uniform. And what happened to the Dodgers in their first season with Mattingly as hitting instructor, 2008?
They won the NL West, and swept the Chicago Cubs in 3 straight to win the NLDS, but got embarrassed by the Phillies in the NLCS. The Dodgers blew 6th-inning lead in Game 1 and an 8th-inning lead in Game 4. Rafael Furcal, with a 1.012 OPS in the regular season, dropped to .687 in the NLCS. Andre Ethier dropped from .885 to .534, Russell Martin from .781 to .436, Blake DeWitt from .728 to .364 (a hopeless 1-for-13), and the veteran, near-Hall-of-Famer Jeff Kent from .745 to .000 – he went 0-for-8. Former Red Sox teammates Manny Ramirez and Nomar Garciaparra stepped their OPSs up, as did Matt Kemp and Juan Pierre. But the Dodgers had too many key guys stop hitting.
Credit the Phillies' pitching for stopping the Dodgers? Their WHIP for the series was 1.545, but with a WHIP that high, they should have had a much higher ERA than 3.89. The Dodgers had their chances, and they blew it. This was almost as bad as the 1977 and '78 NLCS were for the Phils, losing to the Dodgers in shocking, disgraceful moments. Now, just as they had done by benefiting from a September choke instead of perpetrating one, the Phils had turned the tables on the L.A. Bums.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Children of All Ages, read ye now the indictment:
There is a Curse of Donnie Baseball. No Major League Baseball team that has had Don Mattingly in uniform, in any capacity, has ever won a Pennant, and none ever will.
One season can be written off as, "Hey, that's baseball, these things happen." Maybe even several seasons, as factors like injuries, bad trades, problems between players and management cause teams that could win to not do so.
We now have 19 seasons of evidence for this Curse. If the Phillies manage to not choke this Pennant away, and I think they will win this Pennant, we will have 20 seasons of evidence.
Twenty years. You've heard my case. The prosecution rests. The defense may call whichever witnesses it chooses. I reserve the right to cross-examine them.
Call it a Curse. Call him Donnie Regular Season Baseball. He will never win a Pennant. Ever.
As the late, great Phillies center fielder and broadcaster Richie Ashburn would say, "Bet your house on it, Harry."