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    « BACK to David Puner's portfolio

    Posted 03.31.05
    The Last Don?
    Meeting the Hero... Hoping to Lift the Juice Stain

    Dec. 18, 2004

    Nestled among uninspiring outlets of a suburban shopping center--Petland Discounts, Dress Barn, Hallmark, and Hot Bagels--my childhood hero sat inside Last Licks, alternately clutching black and blue indelible Sharpies. Last Licks, a sports memorabilia store, was celebrating its grand opening in Thornwood, NY, with an appearance by former New York Yankee captain and current hitting coach, Don Mattingly. A crowd streamed out of the store's entrance, which was decorated with red, white, and blue bunting-like Yankee Stadium on opening day. I was waiting on line, in the shadows cast by storefront overhangs, with hundreds of other people clutching mementos and memories of the dignified first baseman. Many Mattingly fans had their children with them--kids who weren't born when Mattingly played his last game in 1995.

    On line, there was chatter about steroids and the current Yankee first baseman, Jason Giambi's admitted use of steroids and human growth hormones. On this, the weekend after Giambi's testimony to a federal grand jury investigating BALCO leaked, staining baseball, it seemed fitting that Mattingly, esteemed first baseman from lean-years' past was making a public appearance. Giambi was silent and out of sight. With Giambi, now officially a thorn in Yankees' side, I ostensibly went to Thornwood to get an autograph from the former Yankee captain. Mainly I went to affirm my hero existed. As a 31-year-old, I was doing something for the 13-year-old I had once been.

    I asked a kid standing in line in front of me, whose head reached his father's elbow, whether he was a Giambi fan. "No," he said weakly, as he shifted his eyes left and right. "Not really." His father translated: "He's not a fan of guys who do bad things."

    As Yankee captain, Mattingly was a gritty, blue-collar player with a Magnum P.I. mustache, who was always the first at the stadium to take extra batting practice, and the last to leave, after more post-game batting practice. He was dubbed "The Hit Man" after winning the batting title in 1984, his first full season. In 1991, a season when the Yankees were horrible, Mattingly got mixed-up in the biggest controversy of his career--manager Stump Merrill, ordered Donnie to cut his hair. Mattingly sat out for one game before succumbing to Yankee cosmetic conformity mandate; he got the mullet trimmed.

    Giambi in his heyday with the Oakland A's, was a heavy metal MVP--a shaggy, tattooed, bad boy, with the physique of Paul Bunyan. When Giambi signed his seven-year, $120 million Yankee contract before the 2002 season, he readily complied with team regulation and cleaned himself up--goatee removed; bicep tattoos covered-up. Pinstriped fašade conformity complete, Giambi went from looking Badass to Biznass. One thing that didn't change was his size and the Yankee front office had no problem with it--he was enormous--it looked like he could bench press a Transit Authority bus. Turns out, the team's larger-than-life, high-profile new toy was shooting himself full of juice. The Yankees supposedly didn't know and are now hypocritically attempting to void Giambi's contract. The Yankees acted as an enabler--they wanted the high-performance Giambino--and Giambi could only achieve the Ruthian-mystique through steroids and human growth hormones. A team doesn't pay a player $120 million and not know their guy is doping.

    "What are you gonna ask Mr. Mattingly?" a waiting woman asked her son, who looked barely old enough to speak. The boy shrugged, appearing as if he was attempting to retract his head into a phantom shell, and said nothing. "Call him Donnie Baseball. That's his name--Donnie Baseball," the woman encouraged, while she held her son's hand and, in her other hand, gripped a plastic bag containing a boxed Mattingly action figure. It occurred to me that I wasn't sure what I was going to say either.

    When the Yankees first signed Giambi, the 13-year-old in me was thrilled that we got such an awesome player; the cynical adult recognized that the Yankees had just bought a Hummer--it was the baddest, biggest behemoth on the block, but it was also impractical, guzzled fuel, and was prone to breakdowns. Over the past couple of seasons, Giambi's slew of ailments: vision problems; knee tendonitis; intestinal parasite; pituitary tumor--some, which are coincidentally, symptoms of steroid use--combined with his incredibly shrinking physique, should have been enough evidence for most sleuths to realize Giambi was juicing. Now, of course, every sports writer, commentator and sports radio caller says they knew the whole time.

    To get to Thornwood, I drove up the Major Deegan, past Yankee Stadium. The billboard outside the stadium, used during the season to display game-time and opponent read, "HAPPY HOLIDAYS." When I was a kid, I used to love going to the stadium hours before game-time. The best part was hanging out in the stands at field-level and hoping to snag a batting practice ball or have one of the players warming up in the outfield come over to sign and chat. When I was 12, I was in the stands before a game and Ron Kittle, a reserve outfielder, was signing autographs. "Nice home run last night, Mr. Kittle," I said.

    "Home runs aren't everything, kid," he said. It was a deflating moment.

    Years later, I don't go to games early. I still follow the Yankees on a daily basis, but I can't relate to guys my own age and younger making obscene money to play baseball. It's not that I think they don't deserve it. I'll admit it--I'm jealous--I'd like to get paid millions to be a Yankee. Maybe if I was growing up today my hero would be Derek Jeter, the first Yankee captain since Mattingly and Yankee hero du jour. Jeter's an excellent player, a career-Yankee, and is often called a model citizen--but there's something about him that seems so scripted.

    "I look up to him as an inspiration," a 14-year-old Jeter worshipper named Ronnie, recently told me. "Jeter's a good captain, because he has a lot of class, works hard at what he does, and is the true definition of what a Yankee really is," Ronnie explained to me. Ronnie thinks Giambi is generally "a good guy and a good player" and will continue to play for the Yankees and that Jeter, as captain, will "keep an eye on him." Although Ronnie is bothered that steroid users have an unfair advantage, other substance issues bother Ronnie more. "If you're gonna be doing marijuana and stuff like that, it's a lot worse than doing steroids," he said.

    In 1987, Dwight Gooden, then a huge star with the Mets, tested positive for cocaine during spring training. Then 13-years-old, I called a talk radio show to compare and contrast Gooden to Mattingly (in what I must have considered a relevant association). "Mattingly has had more pressure than Dwight Gooden because Steinbrenner has said he has to bring the team to a division title because of the amount of money he's being paid," I read from a prepared statement, in one pre-pubescent breath. Mattingly, I told Art Rust Jr., "keeps himself composed, and he has never turned to drugs, and I don't think he ever would... I think Don Mattingly finely represents the 1987 Yankees, and I don't think pressure is a good excuse for Dwight."

    "David, well said," Art Rust Jr. said.

    "Thank you," I said.

    Dwight Gooden, after struggling with drug and shoulder problems for years, in an ultimate moment, pitched a no-hitter against the Seattle Mariners in May 1996--as a Yankee! Derek Jeter, the 21-year-old rookie Yankee shortstop got a hit in the game. Donnie Baseball's replacement, Tino Martinez, went oh-for-three.

    Sometimes when I drive by Yankee Stadium--The House That Ruth Built--I wax nostalgic for home runs. Babe Ruth metaphorically built The House, courtesy of the shots he hit out of it. Other notable Yankee home run hitters include: Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson, and Dave Winfield. All but Maris, are Hall of Famers. And none of them had the caricature bulk of Jason Giambi (pre-2004 shrinkage). Reggie Jackson, who was considered huge in his day at six-foot-zero-inches, 200-pounds, was not much bigger than present-day George W. Bush (who stands just shy of six-feet, and fluctuates around 195-pounds). Before lifting became a standard part of training, baseball heroes looked like regular guys, but they still seemed larger-than-life because of elite ability (and, in many cases, work ethic). Coincidentally, Giambi's childhood hero was Mantle, whose playing career was cut short, in large part due to the effects of alcohol abuse. In hindsight, Mantle cheated himself and his fans by partying--he was an incredibly gifted player who could have been better. Instead of wondering how much better Giambi could have been, people are now questioning how much ability had to do with the home runs and his MVP season. Now, the steroids have left him with a disadvantage.

    One Mattingly home run I often remember was hit in what turned out to be his last game at Yankee Stadium. It also happened to come in his first and only postseason series. When Mattingly hit the shot, in the bottom of the sixth inning, on Oct. 4, 1995, against the Seattle Mariners, I was one of 57,000 frenzied fans at the stadium chanting "DON-NIE BASEBALL!"--followed in rapid succession by five claps and then another chant of "DON-NIE BASEBALL!" clap-clap, clap-clap-clap... After 14 years without postseason baseball in the Bronx, the atmosphere was especially charged for The Captain. And Mattingly played his 34-year-old ass off in that American League Division Series--he hit .417. Don Mattingly was playing like the Don Mattingly of old, broadcasters ballyhooed. But the Yanks lost the series and Don was done--his reserve tank drained. The stiff back that had plagued him for years and derailed a Hall of Fame career made the decision for him.

    As players disappear from rosters, with older players discarded for younger ones, former stars fade into retired obscurity. It was extremely difficult for me to accept a Mattingly-less Yankee team when he decided not to come back for the '96 season. He determined he couldn't play to his own standards on a daily basis, so he opted to stay home with his family in Indiana. Mattingly could have collected a few more millions and had a couple more hurrahs, but he ducked out before the Yanks went to their first World Series since 1981. When the Yankees beat the Braves in the World Series, The Captain was in Evansville.

    This holiday season the Red Sox are World Champions and there is little joy in Yankeeland. To add to Yankee misery, Giambi, the wilted pinstriped hero, has become the poster boy for a seedy underside of the American pastime. Fueled by the threat of perjury, he told the truth and is paying for it through humiliation. The physical toll may wind up being far worse. Perhaps the message on the billboard outside Yankee Stadium should read--"SORRY KIDS."

    Back at the Thornwood shopping center, the line was moving quickly and I would soon be face to face with Mattingly. Have your cameras ready, demanded a couple of goons. Keep the line moving! I was so concerned with having my camera ready that I turned it on way in advance, and when it automatically shutoff, I didn't notice. Half of the forty seconds I'd been allotted with The Captain were spent trying to explain to a goon that my camera wasn't on. I got the photo--in it, Donnie's sitting at a table, having just signed my Winfield/Mattingly eight-by-ten--looking very much like the Don Mattingly of Old-same full head of brown hair (sans mullet). At 43, the only major obvious change since his playing days is the salt in his goatee (which, of course, is forbidden during the season when he's the Yankees' hitting coach). I'm standing in front of the table with The Captain's hand on my back. I look pleased. Whatever my plan had been for my moment with Mattingly, I dropped the ball. As any kid meeting his hero, I was at a loss for words. "You're my favorite player ever," I said, awkwardly, while reaching to shake his hand.

    Thanks very much, he said, shaking my hand. Like meeting a department store Santa as a kid, I was excited, but more to see the picture afterward than about the actual encounter, which was manufactured. I had met Mattingly, but it wasn't the way I'd always dreamed of: The Captain greeting me with a hi-five at home plate after I'd hit a home run.

    With my lifelong mission accomplished, I left Thornwood and went back to the city. Amidst the early-evening holiday hustle along Fifth Avenue, the Yankee Clubhouse, one of the team-owned merchandise branches, was doing light business. Giambi jerseys and T-shirts were still on the racks and selling just as many as before the steroid bombshell, I was told--not many. "People don't care," the clerk told me. Giambi t-shirts, it turns out, haven't been selling well all year--he didn't play much last season because of the injuries. Jeter, Matsui, A-Rod, and Sheffield are the top-sellers, she told me. Another clerk, hanging Giambi t-shirts at the back of the store told me, without irony, that the store only had extra-larges left in Giambi T's. The extra larges run especially big these days. "My boss will probably wait to see if his contract gets voided," he told me, regarding reordering. There weren't any Mattingly T-shirts at the Yankee Clubhouse.

    Gary Sheffield, whose T-shirt is a top-seller, is set to make an appearance at Last Licks in February and, inevitably, a line will form outside the shopping center. Sheffield, another less-than-perfect hero, also testified in the BALCO hearing and admitted to unknowingly using a cream that contained steroids. By February one can only hope he'll have had his mistaken ointment-story ironed-out by a P.R. machine.

    While on line waiting to meet Don Mattingly, a fan wearing a fitted Yankee cap and an authentic pinstriped jersey with Mattingly's No. 23 on the back was talking loudly about Sheffield. "You tell me he didn't know what he was taking?" he said, and then paused for a moment. "Baa-lone-eee!"