In honor of Opening Day…

It’s Derek Jeter’s last season. This depresses me on many levels. Makes me feel old, yada yada yada, but mostly, it brings me back to his rookie season in 1996 (ninth grade) and the many nights I stayed up late into the night with my clock radio pressed to my ear so I could hear the end of the Yankees’ extra-inning games. So, in honor of his last season, I’m posting an old essay I wrote about love and baseball. It’s called “Me and My Mattingly.”

I found this picture on the internet, but I do actually own this card, naturally.

I found this picture on the Internet, but I do actually own this card, naturally.

The first time I fell in love, I was seven years old. The Yankees were not a great team back then, despite the impressive talent on their roster: Dave Winfield. Rickey Henderson. Don Mattingly.

It was Mattingly who first caught my eye. Tall and pinstriped with a stately sheriff’s moustache, Don was a real looker. His dimpled chin, deeply set eyes and near-constant stubble—this was a rugged, adorable hunk.

Most importantly, like me—and like so many great first basemen—he was left-handed. Left-handed! We had so much in common: I ate with my left hand. So did Don! I threw a ball with my left hand. So did Don! At night, I curled my teddy bear into the crook of my left arm. And so did Don! He and I were obviously a match made in heaven. The only real problem was that we’d never actually met.

Luckily for me, though, my family made frequent trips to Yankee Stadium. We always sat in the upper deck—tier reserved, it was called, to make it sound fancier—where we could see everything: the lush criss-crossed grass of the outfield, the subway cars passing by on elevated tracks, the tan apartment building that poked its head over the stadium wall, and, last but certainly not least, Don Mattingly’s assured, dignified stance as he waited in the ready position to pick off the runner at first.

This is usually how I met him:

A batter shanks a pop fly into foul territory. The ever-vigilant Mattingly jumps up and follows it, hoping to make an easy catch for the third out of the inning. But no! A wind current catches the ball at the last minute, shooting it high above the stands. As tall as the Empire State Building, the ball eventually swoops down to me—me!—who happens to be standing at the edge of the tier, hand in mitt, arm extended far over the railing.

The ball just barely lands in my glove. The crowd roars with excitement. Imagine it: a seven-year-old left-handed girl makes a glorious catch in tier reserved! All eyes are on me—including Don’s, watching glowingly from the field below.

But then—I begin to lose my balance. The sheer force of the baseball’s momentum is strong enough to pull the weight of my little body over the railing; I am now perilously dangling by my left foot and screaming in terror.

From the dirt in foul territory, my man-in-pinstriped-armor leaps over the blue padded wall and sprints up the concrete stairs of the stands below me. He tears off his glove and hurls it to the ground, freeing his hands just in time as my foot gives way and I soar through the air and land in his arms—with the baseball, miraculously, still in my glove.

From there, he carries me off into the polluted New York City sunset and we live happily ever after.

Here is the Mattingly page of my baseball card collection.

The Mattingly page of my baseball card collection.

“Ever after” lasted until 1995, the year Mattingly retired from baseball. In the season’s eleventh hour, the Yankees clinched the playoffs for the first time since 1981—the year before Donnie made it to the majors.

I watched or listened to nearly every Yankee game that season, doing algebra homework during weeknight games and meticulously filling out scorecards on the weekends. So when my family went on a camping trip during the American League Division Series, I wasn’t about to let a little bit of nature get between me and my Mattingly.

The final game of their season dragged into extra innings and late into the night. In the middle of the southern Jersey woods, somewhere near the Delaware border, as my mother, brother, aunt, uncle and cousins snored away in the tent, I watched the stars from the front seat of our van and tuned into 770 AM for the Yankee play-by-play.

With the five-game series tied at 2-2, this was the Yankees’ critical push to the next step of the playoffs—and Mattingly’s final chance at greatness, as it was widely thought that this season would be his last. The game was a nail biter to the end, and in the top of the eleventh, the Yanks drove home the go-ahead run off of the Seattle Mariner’s mangy, lanky side-armer Randy Johnson. But the pinstriped boys were wearing their road grays, and the Mariners mustered up a rally in the bottom of the inning to come from behind and win the game.

It was all over—Mattingly would be lost to me forever. Tears began to stream down my face, and soon my body was convulsing with painful sobs. “It isn’t fair! This isn’t the way he was supposed to go!” I wailed, to no one but the crickets. I cried for nearly an hour.

I mourned through the winter and sulked my way into spring. And then—a glimmer of hope arose with the budding bulbs of April: The Yankees had a new shortstop, a kid brought up through the farm system who’d had a handful of major league at-bats the season before and would now be swinging his way into his official rookie year.

His skin was smooth, his body slender and youthful. His eyes glimmered with the promise of daredevil diving catches and clutch RBIs—Derek Jeter would make headlines, I could tell. And dare I say it, but he looked even better in pinstripes than my dear old Donnie did.

And so, for the second time in my life, I fell in love with baseball.

I also found this on the internet—but guess what? This exact Sports Illustrated cover is STILL taped to the wall in my childhood bedroom.

I also found this on the internet—but guess what? This exact Sports Illustrated cover is STILL taped to the wall in my childhood bedroom.

4 thoughts on “In honor of Opening Day…

  1. Laura, I teared up a little reading this. Not because my love of Dodger Blue comes anywhere near to this kind of devotion – but I remember, so viscerally, your deep understanding and unapologetic love for the Yankees and Derek Jeter – sitting on the Beehive porch while you waxed poetic.

    Love this piece!

  2. Thanks for sharing this Laura. You make me a little excited for … baseball? All joking aside, I can feel the passion in your devotion. Thanks for sharing.

    • Jim, baseball is exciting, or it least, it can be. The strategy is the part that is most fascinating, but that’s the part that is mostly hidden unless you’re listening to a really good announcer. Ultimate is more fun to play, of course.

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