Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Curse of Donnie Baseball: Do You Now Believe?

Last night, a rainout postponed the start of an 2-game Interleague series between the Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Yankee Stadium II.  The result is a day-night doubleheader starting this afternoon.

These 2 teams have played each other many times, including in spring training (until the Dodgers' recent move from Grapefruit League Florida to Cactus League Arizona) and in 11 World Series -- 7 while the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn: 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956, with the Dodgers winning in 1955 and the Yankees all the others.  Since moving to Los Angeles, the Dodgers have beaten the Yankees in World Series play in 1963 and 1981, and the Yankees have triumphed in 1977 and 1978.

Those 11 Series are easily the most-often-played World Series matchup.  The next-closest is the 5 between the Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals, although that hasn't happened since 1964, despite some close calls, including 1996, when the Cards were 1 win away from making it happen again.

The way Interleague play has worked out, the Yankees and Dodgers have played each other 6 times, all at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles: June 18-20, 2004, when the Dodgers took 2 out of 3; and June 25-27, 2010, when the Yankees returned the favor.  So the all-time regular-season matchup is 6-6.  If you count World Series play, then it's 18-16 in the Dodgers' favor.  If you count the Brooklyn version of the team, then it's 43-35 in the Yankees' favor.

Since 2011, when he succeeded the retiring Joe Torre, himself a Yankee Legend, the Dodgers' manager has been "Yankee Legend" Don Mattingly.

I put "Yankee Legend" in quotation marks because, to be a Yankee Legend, you have to have at least won a Pennant.  This allows Bobby Murcer and Dave Winfield to qualify.

Don Mattingly is not a Yankee Legend.  He is a curse.

The following is an update of a piece I've done before.


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, in this country without the intensity of club soccer hatreds, 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?

Most Yankee Fans, inside or outside of the Cult of St. Donald Arthur, don’t know about the Curse.  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.


Donald Arthur Mattingly, of Evansville, Indiana, now 52 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 won the American League Pennant. This was their 4th Pennant, and 5th postseason berth, in the last 6 seasons.

1982: The Yankees called Mattingly up on September 6. He played 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 finished 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 had his first season of being more than a look-see at the end. The Yankees finished 3rd. No shame in that, as the Baltimore Orioles ran away with the AL Eastern Division and won the World Series.

1984: Mattingly won the AL batting title with a .343 average, the highest for a Yankee in 27 years. Teammate Dave Winfield is right behind him at .340. Mattingly had also become a spectacularly-fielding first baseman. The Yankees finished 3rd, as the Detroit Tigers ran away with the Division and won the World Series. So far, no reason to suspect Mattingly of anything; after all, this was only his first full season with the team.

1985: Mattingly put together a season that earned him the AL Most Valuable Player award. The Yankees had their best season between 1981 and 1996, and their 97 wins was the most they would get between 1980 and 1998. But it wasn't enough, as the Toronto Blue Jays clinched against them on the next-to-last day of the regular season. Still no big deal: Plenty of players fall short in their first attempt at a real Pennant race.

1986: Mattingly set a Yankee record with 238 hits in a season. But the Yankees finished 2nd again, 5½ games behind the hated Boston Red Sox. Finishing 2nd to the Red Sox is never a good thing.  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 have been 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 had a streak of hitting home runs in 8 consecutive games, tying a major league record. He also hit 6 grand slams in the season, setting a new record. (Each of those records has since been tied, but not broken.) But the Yankees finished 4th, 9 games behind the Tigers. Can’t blame Mattingly for that: The Yankees had injuries, and particularly damaging were those to Willie Randolph and, to a lesser extent, Winfield.

1988: Another terrific year for Mattingly, but the Yankees finished 5th. Fifth! And it was the Red Sox winning the Division again! True, the Yankees were only 3½ games behind in a wild race that saw the first 4 teams (Boston, Detroit, Toronto and the Milwaukee Brewers) all within 2 games. But this was 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 31 seasons between their first Pennant in 1921 and 1984 in which the Yankees did not win the Pennant, 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 he’d been a baseball fan, “I find your lack of postseason play disturbing.”

1989: Another very good year for Mattingly, but the Yankees collapsed. Hardly any pitching. Winfield missed the entire season with a back injury. Another injury forced 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 47 years. They can’t see contention with binoculars. And Mattingly’s injuries rendered 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 were tied with the Toronto Blue Jays on September 8. But it all fell apart again, and they finished 7 games back. Not Mattingly’s fault? Sure doesn't look like it: He had his best season in 5 years, in terms of both personal statistics and team finish. Yet again, it seemed like the Yankees were one starting pitcher away. The bullpen needed some help, too. Mattingly was not the problem. Or, at least, he appeared not to be.

1994: This was the season it was all going to come together. At bat, Mattingly bat was partying like it’s 1985. Paul O’Neill was on his way to becoming the first Yankee since Mattingly that year to win the batting title. Bernie Williams was coming into his own. Even the pitching had improved. On August 11, not only were they in first place by 6½ games over the Orioles, but they had the best record in the AL. On August 12, the Major League Baseball Players Association went on strike. On September 15, with the strike still unresolved, Commissioner Bud Selig canceled 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 first Pennant race in 35 years, the Texas Rangers were in first place that late in the season for the first time in their 23-year history, the Montreal Expos had the best record in baseball and a shot at their first full-season postseason berth in their 36-year history, and the Colorado Rockies, in only their second season of play, were just a game and a half behind the Dodgers for the National League 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 first-ever postseason series in 14 years of trying, he batted .417 and hit 2 home runs, including one in Game 2 that sent the crowd at the original Yankee 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, in retrospect, it is hard to miss the parallel between 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 first 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 first baseman Tino Martinez hit well and reliever Jeff Nelson pitched well, the Yankees wouldn’t have sent third 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 one 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 retired Mattingly's uniform Number 23, and dedicated a Plaque in his honor to 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 if that Series had happened. The Yanks went 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 in uniform, 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 first two got caught (though it wasn’t revealed until July 30, 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, they also didn’t hit much.

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.

I was afraid that Mattingly would get the Yankee job, and continue the Curse.  And he would never, ever be fired, no matter how badly he did.  After all, George Steinbrenner nearly went down in history as the man who fired Yogi Berra.  Hank and Hal Steinbrenner would not have wanted to go down in history as the men who fired Don Mattingly.  There are some popularity contests that you just can't win.  Instead, Joe Girardi was hired; and, while he's driven me crazy sometimes, he has done much better as a manager than Mattingly.


There you have it. Between 1921 (their first 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 2007), the Yankees have never won.

Even after the ’96 World Series, the pattern did not escape my notice. And when in 2004, their first 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 has happened to the Dodgers with Mattingly in uniform?

In 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, future Yankee 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.  So now, Mattingly had put a cloud over a second franchise.

In 2009, the Dodgers won the NL West and the NLDS again, setting up another NLCS against the Phillies.  The Phils trailed the Dodgers 4-3 in the bottom of the 9th in Game 4 at Citizens Bank Park. But a walk, a hit batsman, and Jimmy Rollins’ double up the gap won the game for the Fightin’ Phils, 5-4. The next night, the Phils won their 7th Pennant, and their first-ever back-to-back Pennants.

How could the Dodgers have blown 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, did they not know of the Curse of Donnie Baseball?

2010: The Dodgers missed the postseason, and Torre retired as a manager.  Mattingly was named manager.

2011: The Dodgers won only 82 games, barely a winning season.  This can't all be put on Mattingly, as the team's ownership situation was a mess, as owner Frank McCourt was going through a divorce and stripped the Dodgers' assets to fund his legal defense.  But Earvin "Magic" Johnson, already an L.A. sports legend for what he did with the Lakers, and a man who may actually have achieved more in business since leaving the court, bought the team, and did what every sports team owner should do, but most don't: Decided to spend whatever it takes to win.  Whether Magic will ultimately succeed, I don't know; but at least he's trying, whereas other team owners with his resources don't increase the payroll, don't go after the best players, and don't try to hang onto the good ones they already have.

2012: The Ddogers won 86 games, and were in the race for one of the NL's Wild Card spots the whole way.  Should they have done better? Yes.  Would they have done better with a manager other than Mattingly? Maybe.  But it was just the first full year of Magicball.  Maybe they still needed time...

2013 thus far: The Dodgers come into today's doubleheader 29-39, well under .500, and are 11 1/2 games out of first place in the NL West.  They are also 11 1/2 games out of the NL's 2nd Wild Card spot.  And rumors are running rampant that Mattingly could be fired as manager, because he's not getting the job done.

So there's another team beset by this Curse.


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 24 seasons of evidence for this Curse.  Nearly a quarter of a century.

Am I wrong? Am I exaggerating? Do you need further testimony? Okay, here goes.  On October 26, 1997, while Mattingly was being considered for the managerial vacancy after Torre left, Robert A. George wrote this in the New York Post

Don Mattingly would be the absolute worst choice to be Yankees manager. I'm glad that Brian Cashman appears to be wavering on this. Do I base my views on any sort of great baseball knowledge? Not really -- though the fact that he has NO experience as a manager should be a factor. 

No, my objection goes to a point I made once before: Mattingly IS the "curse" of the Yankees. He is the best player the Yankees have ever had WHO NEVER WON ANYTHING. I made this point in one of my earliest RT posts. Time has proven my point even more: The Yankees haven't gotten out of the first round of the playoffs since Mattingly returned to the team as a coach. 

And, circumstantial evidence suggests that this is not just a coincidence. Aside from starting pitching problems, what differentiates the Yankees of the last four seasons ('04-'07) from their dynastic brethren of '96-'03? The answer is patient clutch pitching. Failure to get that clutch two-strike, two-out hit has doomed the Yankees in recent years. Who was the hitting coach in three of those four years. Yep, Mr. Donnie Baseball -- the man who came up to the major leagues just when the Yankees concluded a four World Series/two championships-in-six-year-run. The team wouldn't make it back to the Fall Classic until the year after Mattingly's last year. 

He returned in '04. The rest is history.

In a game where superstition accounts for quite a lot, Don Mattingly is the black cat, the broken mirror and the crack in the sidewalk all rolled into one.

Okay, it's the Post.  But it is one of the New York Tri-State Area's major papers, behind the Times and the Daily News, but with a readership well ahead of Newsday, the Star-Ledger and the other Jersey papers, the Journal News and any other Hudson Valley paper, and the New Haven Register and any other Connecticut paper.

So someone from a major paper also takes it seriously.

You’ve heard my case. The prosecution rests. The defense may call whichever witnesses it chooses. I reserve the right to cross-examine them.

Do you now believe?

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."

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