The wind was blowing out when Danny Tartabull arrived at the park in Kansas City that evening. The sun was still draining from the sky like a thick amber fluid, so the lights had not been turned on yet. He would see to that himself, Tartabull thought. He would turn the bright lights on, and then he would never let them go out again.
Tartabull had sent a limousine for his girlfriend. Kellie Van Kirk, along with a dozen roses and a note instructing her precisely what dress he wanted her to wear that night. When the limo pulled into Wyandotte County Park, a ranger motioned it through a barricade, then sealed off traffic, and started removing any stray joggers still on the grounds. "I didn't want anybody pecking," Tartabull says.
When she arrived, he was waiting for her in a rented tuxedo—the rental is a detail that still troubles Tartabull three years later—with a four-course dinner and champagne. A harpist played softly as the couple ate. When they finished, Tartabull suggested that they walk up a nearby hill.
As they strolled along the crest of the hill, fireworks began to erupt in the distance, a cascade of sparks forming the question in letters 25 feet high: KELLIE, WILL YOU MARRY ME? Tartabull watched her reaction as if he were standing at the plate admiring a home run sailing out of the park. "I wanted to give her a never-ending memory," Tartabull says. "I enjoy watching other people treasure the moments I create."
March 23, 1992
Tartabull often tried to turn the bright lights on himself in his six years in Kansas City and Seattle, but he remained resolutely in the shadows until he signed a $25.5 million, five-year contract with the New York Yankees in January. A lifetime .287 hitter with 152 home runs, Tartabull was even overshadowed in free agency by his new crosstown rival, Bobby Bonilla, who signed with the New York Mets for $29 million. But it may be Tartabull whose light shines brightest in New York, where he is expected to have an immediate impact on the dreary Yankees, losers of 91 games last season and 95 the year before. "I think the contract sheds light on who Danny Tartabull is," Tartabull says. "The world will soon know who I am.
"I am different," he says, "very much different. But on the baseball field I'm the same as any other great player." Tartabull, 29, led the Royals at the plate last season, hitting .316 with 100 RBIs and 31 home runs. His numbers were almost identical to Bonilla's (.302. 100 RBIs), except when it came to going deep: Tartabull hit 13 more home runs than Bonilla did. Could Tartabull have been just a little too different for his own good? Just three years earlier, in '88, The New York limes had quoted "people who have served with Tartabull in Kansas City" as saying that he had "a bad attitude about playing, won't take instruction, only wants to hit home runs, is selfish and not a team player, and plays lackadaisically in the out-Held." The attribution was sufficiently vague to have included all the Royals, half the sommeliers and most of the harpists in town.
"I've always felt that I am a great player," Tartabull says. "Always. But people have never heard me say I'm a great player." He is warming to the subject now. "Behind closed doors, I'll tell you in a minute," he says. "I am great. I know that in certain situations I can do things a lot of other guys can't. I tune it up a little bit. But you'll never, ever hear me say publicly that I am great." For a moment, Tartabull looks stricken, evidently realizing he may have gone one rhetorical flourish too far. "But let's say I do tell everyone that I'm great," he goes on, recovering now. "What does that have to do with having a bad attitude?"
The sniping about Tartabull's attitude seemed to commence when the Seattle Mariners inexplicably traded him to the Royals following a rookie season, in 1986, in which he hit 25 homers and knocked in 96 runs. Of the three players the Mariners received in return—Mike Kingery, Scott Bankhead and Steve Shields—only Bank-head had a bright future in the majors. "I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on," Tartabull says, still incredulous at the disrespect implicit in such a lopsided trade.
From the moment he arrived in Kansas City, he felt slighted by the Royals, starting with the introductory press conference that the team conducted on his behalf, which he found unworthy. If Tartabull knew what a great player he was, why couldn't the rest of them see? He would show them.
After hitting his 23rd home run that year, he announced to reporters that he had just tied Al Cowens's homer record for Royals rightfielders. "Nobody knew that," one reporter said later. "And frankly, nobody cared." He hit .309 with 34 homers and 101 RBIs in his first season with the Royals. "I have always risen to revenge," Tartabull said.
The next season he became the first player in Royals history to hold out in spring training. "I'm not asking them to overpay me," he insisted. "There are enough guys on this team being overpaid already." He remained bitter when forced to accept the team's offer of $330,000, which fell $95,000 short of his asking price. "There wasn't any negotiating," he said, "it was more like a lynching."
"Some people said he had a bad attitude," says Royals centerfielder Brian McRae. "People think he's arrogant, but that's just the way he is. Not everybody can be your normal run-of-the-mill person. He likes fancy cars, he likes dressing nice, he has a lot of nice jewelry. That might rub some people the wrong way, but that's just Danny."
Tartabull averaged .290 with 25 home runs and 85 RBIs during his five seasons in Kansas City. "Face it," says Royals in-fielder Kevin Seitzer, "the guy can back up everything he says. He's done it every year."
Tartabull often brooded about the popularity of former Royals outfielder Bo Jackson, who received so much national attention that Tartabull once called him a "sideshow attraction." The two were friends, but Tartabull believed himself to be the better player and competed furiously with Jackson. "When Bo hit one 500 feet, Danny would try to hit one 500 feet," says Royals manager Hal McRae, who often heard about the duel while he was the hitting coach in Montreal. "I'm sure it hurt Danny's performance, trying to outdo Bo instead of staying within himself."
After having a big game at Yankee Stadium several years ago, Tartabull showered slowly, then refused to talk to reporters crowded around his locker. Later he told a friend that he felt the New York media had snubbed him before the game in favor of Jackson. If the reporters didn't want to acknowledge him before the game, he would not acknowledge them alter it. This sort of thing will play well in the New York tabloids this summer.
"In Kansas City I was lost in the shuffle," Tartabull says. "It got ridiculous. It didn't matter what I would do, it was just another day. That was the Royals' fault." He has hired a personal publicist to prevent any such oversights in New York.
"Kansas City didn't suit Danny as far as exposure goes," says Brian McRae. "You look at his numbers and they compare with Canseco, Fielder, Bonilla and Joe Carter. But when you go around the country and talk about players, Danny's name is probably not in the first 10 or 15 to come up. He wanted to go someplace where he could be the man."
What was often seen as arrogance in Kansas City was merely Tartabull's violation of a fundamental tribal taboo: He brought his wife along on road trips. If he was with his wife, he couldn't be with his teammates, some of whom believed he was setting himself apart from them. "Bull never hung with too many people," Seitzer says. "His wife was on all the road trips, and he hung with her all the time. Everybody liked him and he got along with everybody, but as far as close friends. I don't know who they'd be."
"I don't think the measure of a baseball player is how many times you go out with the guys," Tartabull says. "For people to be worrying about what I don't want to do with them is stupid. If they want to call me arrogant, I brush it off like dust. I don't try to be different, but I enjoy being with my wife. She's my best friend. We like going to plays together or going to an art gallery. But if you talk about going to a gallery to a lot of guys, they think you're a fag. The stereotypical baseball player is supposed to walk around with a big chew in his mouth, pull on his crotch and get in bar fights. And I'm at the other end of the spectrum. I wasn't brought up that way."
Jose Tartabull, Danny's father, played for nine seasons in the major leagues, hitting .261 in stops at Kansas City, Boston and Oakland, I used to think that every kid on the block had a father who would dress up at 7:30, play a nine-inning game and have people asking him for his autograph," Danny recalls. Because of the demands of his own baseball career, Jose rarely got to see his son play, and when he did go to games, he often lurked behind a pole or in a runway so Danny wouldn't see him and be nervous. It was never a problem. "He was always sure about what he was doing," says the elder Tartabull, now a minor league hitting instructor for the Royals. "Danny always was a very positive guy. He did exactly what he said he was going to do."
One of the things Danny did was hit three home runs in a game against the Oakland A's in 1991, one more than his father hit in his entire career. "When I was a kid, just 10 or 12 years old, I told my dad that not only was I going to make the major leagues," Danny says, "I was going to be better than he ever was."
When Danny was very small, Maria Tartabull could already see that this would be true. She left Cuba in 1961, a year after her husband. They hoped one day to return, but they were forced into involuntary exile in Miami. "My father told me, 'Don't worry, you'll come back,' " she says. "But it's 31 years already." Though her parents live only 90 miles offshore, she has not seen them since.
Danny played on a Little League team in Miami with future big leaguers Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro. "Everything was baseball," he says. "I played in three leagues—morning, afternoon and night—and my mom would be at each and every game. My mom saw that I had the ability to follow in my father's footsteps, and she disciplined me to maximize my ability. It was exciting for my mom that her son was doing well, and I always wanted to do well because that was when she was happy."
Tartabull's mother cooked him steak for lunch almost every day because, she told him, if he was going to be a ballplayer he had to eat right. She saw to it that Danny made it to high school safely by driving him to the front door in the morning, and she was there to pick him up again at the end of the day, even though the school was only three blocks from the Tartabulls' home. Danny never walked, not once.
"She used to go to my school all the time and check up on my progress," he says. "You know how they have PTA? Her PTA meeting was every week. She'd walk into the front office without notice and say she wanted the principal to walk her through all of my classes. It sounds funny now, but it wasn't funny to me then. It was actually rather embarrassing for a 14-year-old kid."
His mother, whom Tartabull now affectionately refers to as the Little General, dropped him off and picked him up at all the parties he attended in high school. "I had to make sure the parties I went to were chaperoned," he says. "If she told me she would pick me up at midnight, she would be back at 11:59 sharp." There were no exceptions to the Little General's curfews, not even when Danny was voted king of the homecoming dance during his senior year at Carol City High School. It was 12:30, and Danny was lost in the happy oblivion of a slow dance when he first saw his mother steaming across the dance floor in his direction. Before he knew it, she was dragging him off by the car, and she didn't let go until they got to the parking lot. "My mom is a very fiery lady," Tartabull says now. "My ways are my mother's ways."
His ways are much closer to Manhattan than Carol City these days as he prepares to storm the battlements of Yankee Stadium. "Fine clothes, fine food, fine wine are important to me," he says. Before leaving for the Yankees' spring training camp in Fort Lauderdale, Tartabull and his wife toured Napa Valley in northern California to expand their wine collection, which has now grown to more than 500 bottles.
Former teammate Chili Davis introduced him to fine wine eight years ago. "He would always have champagne in the locker room," Tartabull says, "and he gave me my first taste of Dom Pèrignon. I started experimenting with whites, then reds, then I got interested in what was the best and why it was the best."
The wine cellar in the home he and Kellie share on a hilltop in Malibu now includes several choice Chateau Latours, some fine Chateau Margaux and a coveted 1985 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. He has even become a wine snob. "If somebody who doesn't know wine comes over," he says, "I'm not going to get out the good stuff." For those oenonothings, Tartabull has an impertinent little Robert Mondavi cabernet he likes.
The Yankees, who haven't finished as high as second place in the American League East in six seasons and haven't won a World Series since Reggie Jackson roamed the outfield, will be happy if Tartabull knows how to pour champagne as well as drink it.