Thursday, July 20, 2017

Flashback, July 1987: Don Mattingly's Golden Summer

This week 30 years ago, Don Mattingly—having already won a Most Valuable Player Award—solidified his status as the best player in baseball. What got everyone’s attention was the major-league record he tied: eight consecutive games in which he hit a home run. Even when that streak ended, however, he set another record, in the American League, for most consecutive games with an extra-base hit (10). And, coming on the heels of that, was a record for first baseman that he tied: most put-outs in a game (22).

In this short period, the Yankee established himself as the gold standard for excellence and consistency with both bat and glove. He did so with a minimum of fuss amid an intense media market and judgmental fan base. At age 26, he seemed on a trajectory for Cooperstown.

Just earlier that month, however, the Yankee star first began to exhibit the symptoms of a body of a starting to betray him. His offensive streak began after he emerged from the hospital, where he lay in traction for five days due to a lower-back injury.

Some time later, reports circulated that Mattingly had hurt himself on June 4 during a friendly locker-room wrestling match with teammate Bob Shirley. The first baseman insisted that the injury occurred while he was fielding groundballs before the game that day. Whatever manner he became aware of the problem, however, it all traced back to one cause: a congenital disk deformity that soon robbed him of his power, shortened his career and deprived him of a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Nobody could have foreseen all of this at the time. Even Mattingly’s doctors at the time didn’t grasp the severity or true nature of his back problem. It was simply two protruding disks, they thought: no surgery required, just a few weeks of rest, that’s all.

Further obscuring his underlying health issues was the vigor with which he bounced back. In his first 13 games back starting in late June, Mattingly hit .370 and knocked home 12 runs.

But the eight-game streak that began July 8 was something else again: 10 home runs (two of which were grand slams), 21 RBIs, two doubles, 11 runs scored, a .459 batting average, a 1.324 slugging average, and—especially astonishing for our free-swinging era—only two strikeouts.

Despite missing 22 games with his back injury, Mattingly finished the 1987 season with a .327 batting average, 30 home runs, 115 RBIs, and a .559 slugging percentage. Yet he only finished seventh that season in the AL voting for Most Valuable Player—partly because his excellence was taken for granted by now, but mostly because the Yankees only ended up fourth in the AL East that year.

That, unfortunately, was the story of nearly all of Mattingly’s 14-year career with the Bronx Bombers. That entire span coincided with the worst postseason drought of George Steinbrenner’s time as owner. In 1994, the team was ahead in the AL East when the Players’ Association went on strike, effectively ending the season. The following year, Mattingly’s last, the team made the playoffs as a wild-card entry, playing with an urgency, many admitted, because they thought this might be their captain’s only chance at the postseason before retirement.

They were right. “Donnie Baseball” made the most of his opportunity in the five-game divisional series with a .417 batting average, four doubles, a home run, and six RBIs. But the Yankees lost that thriller of a series to the Seattle Mariners, and Mattingly had played what turned out to be his last game.

The final offensive totals of Mattingly’s career were noteworthy, but not, in the minds of the sportswriters who voted, gold standard: a .307 batting average, 2,153 hits; 222 home runs; 442 doubles; 1,099 RBI; and 1,007 runs scored. 

As Alex Remington noted in a post for the “Big League Stew” blog seven years ago, those totals don’t even compare favorably with Mattingly contemporaries such as Chili Davis, Jack Clark and Don Baylor. Nine Gold Gloves should have cinched Mattingly’s case as a great all-around player, but in the infield, first base may be the position where defense is least valued.

Baseball is a game of might-have-beens, and few cases have been as poignant as Mattingly’s. But he ended his career as he played it, without rancor, arrogance or self-pity. If there were only a Cooperstown for professionalism, he would have been among the first group ever to be selected. As it is, he can take a quiet pride in how much he did accomplish in his career, with the golden summer of 1987 high among them.

Quote of the Day (Albert Camus, on the ‘Job of Thinking People’)

“It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.” — French Nobel Literature laureate Albert Camus (1913-1960), “Neither Victims Nor Executioners” (1946)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Quote of the Day (Henry Ward Beecher, on the ‘Countenance’ of Flowers)

“Flowers have an expression of countenance as much as men or animals. Some seem to smile; some have a sad expression; some are pensive and diffident; others again are plain, honest and upright, like the broad-faced sunflower and the hollyhock.”— American preacher Henry Ward Beecher, “A Discourse on Flowers,” in The General Baptist Repository, and Missionary Observer (1853)

I took this photo near the duck pond in Saddle River County Park, in Ridgewood, NJ.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Quote of the Day (Anthony Trollope, on Jane Austen)

"Miss [Jane] Austen was surely a great novelist. What she did, she did perfectly. Her work, as far as it goes, is faultless. She wrote of the times in which she lived, of the class of people with which she associated, and in the language which was usual to her as an educated lady. Of romance, -- what we generally mean when we speak of romance -- she had no tinge. Heroes and heroines with wonderful adventures there are none in her novels. Of great criminals and hidden crimes she tells us nothing. But she places us in a circle of gentlemen and ladies, and charms us while she tells us with an unconscious accuracy how men should act to women, and women act to men. It is not that her people are all good; -- and, certainly, they are not all wise. The faults of some are the anvils on which the virtues of others are hammered till they are bright as steel. In the comedy of folly I know no novelist who has beaten her. The letters of Mr. Collins, a clergyman in Pride and Prejudice, would move laughter in a low-church archbishop." — Anthony Trollope, “On English Prose Fiction as a Rational Amusement” (1870), in An Autobiography: and Other Writings, edited by Nicholas Shrimpton (2015)

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the death of English novelist Jane Austen. As I read this short appreciation by Anthony Trollope, it occurred to me that, if you changed “Miss Austen” to “Mr. Trollope” and the female pronouns to male ones, you could just as easily have been talking about the Victorian novelist as the one who wrote of the Napoleonic Era. Indeed, a number of contemporary readers have deemed him “a male Jane Austen.”

Trollope’s openness to her virtues as a writer was by no means a given. In The Way We Live Now, he depicted Lady Carbury, a beginning female writer, with some compassion, but even more irony. Aware that she is not possessed of much ability, Lady Carbury feels compelled to write as a 43-year-old widow who wants to ensure that her grown children are decently provided for. She might not succeed through talent, but she can through still-considerable attractiveness and charm used on male editors and critics who can give her book more attention than it deserves .

Thought of another way: Trollope doesn’t think Mrs. Carbury has earned her way, but Jane Austen most definitely has. Take a look at the half-dozen books she churned out in the last four years of her life—including Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility—and see if he wasn’t right.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Joke of the Day (Phyllis Diller, on Her Cooking Skills)

“In my hands food is a weapon. I can louse up cornflakes. I serve it on the rocks."—Stand-up comic Phyllis Diller quoted in Gerald Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s (2003)

Deriding her lack of culinary skills—or her wider inability at running a household—was hardly the only self-deprecating statement from Phyllis Diller, born Phyllis Ada Driver on this day 100 years ago in Lima, Ohio. Even more self-lacerating were her remarks about her looks. At a certain point, even she became sensitive about them, undergoing plastic surgery—even becoming one of the first celebrities to openly admit having done so.

Three decades ago, I made a cutting remark about Diller’s homeliness to a work colleague. “But you know what? She’s supposed to be one of the nicest people in show business,” he responded. 

Subsequently, I found out he was right—I have never, in fact, heard of anyone in the business having a bad word about her—remarkable for an industry with more than the usual number of neurotics, egotists and cheats. That realization made me reconsider my attitude about her career—and, ultimately, about “looksism” as a standard for judging anybody.

Another point I didn’t realize at the time: Before Ellen DeGeneres, even before Joan Rivers, Diller pioneered stand-up comedy for women. When she started out in the mid-1950s, she said in a 1986 interview on Terry Gross’ NPR show Fresh Air, “There were no female comics around. I was it. I didn't know that. But I had no precedent.”

It was desperation—and the inner toughness not to let anything stand in her way—that drove her in the first place to such an extremity. With five kids and a (first) husband who drank and couldn’t get a job, forced to live in a dismal housing project, she could have been the kind of suburban housewife Betty Friedan had in mind in The Feminine Mystique.

 Instead, at age 37, she took the greatest risk of her career, quitting her copywriter job in the Bay Area and, amid a decade of barely smothered, inarticulate unrest, caused a small earthquake with her wisecracks: “I was saying all the things women were thinking but not saying,” she remembered years later. At the same time, she did so without the spectacular raunch becoming increasingly common among males on the stand-up circuit.

Diller died five years ago this August, at age 95. I like to think she had the last laugh on a world that counted her out when she was a struggling middle-aged mom. Her life offers two good lessons, I think: Don't stop laughing, and don't give up.