Donnie Baseball is in a Flag Race. That's all that really matters. A Flag Race is more commonly called a pennant race, but the New York Yankees' success has provided fresh fodder for that spare, headline-friendly tongue known as Tabloidese, in which a full day's events might be summed up by Yanks Down Halos, Spike Inks Pact. In Tabloidese, the Yanks' entire management hierarchy is reduced to the monosyllabic totem pole of Boss, Stick & Buck.
"I don't even know what Toronto did today," Yankee centerfielder Bernie Williams said last week of New York's primary rival in the Flag Race. "Were they Blanked?" On the contrary. Jays Dumped Lowly Tribe, Stayed Atop Flag Race.
But world champion Toronto is of no concern here. What matters is that Donnie Baseball, who has never played in the World Series or even the playoffs—who truly has been Blanked—is in a Flag Race. As of Sunday, after the Yankees had won two of three games from the Kansas City Royals, his team was one game back of the Blue Jays in the American League East. Donnie Baseball is just his nickname, of course. His full name is Donald Arthur Baseball, a.k.a. Don Mattingly.
He is having his best season in years, batting .309 with 15 home runs and 70 RBIs at week's end. (In his last 56 games, Mattingly hit .355 with 12 homers and 56 RBIs, raising his average from .253 on June 19.) In his brilliant 11-year career as the New York first baseman, he had never been in first place this late in a season. The Yankees have not finished higher than fourth since 1986. Nor have they won their division since '80. It has been five years since Donnie has provided so much as a flutter in a Flag Race. Who knows how many chances remain for the 32-year-old Donnie Baseball?
"Around here," Mattingly said last week in the consecrated Yankee clubhouse, "that seems like a big giant weight on my shoulders. I don't feel that way. If I don't play in [the postseason], I won't jump off any buildings. But, like any player, I want to play in those kinds of games. I expect to. You play in All-Star Games. You win awards. It would be nice to say you've done it all...."
So Donnie Baseball is in a Flag Race, and being in a Flag Race in New York is better than anything you can imagine. "It's better than not being in a pennant race in New York, I'm sure," offers former Boston Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs, who was hitting .361 as a leadoff hitter—.312 overall—for the Yankees this year. "Look at the Mets."
Through Sunday the New York Mets were 35½ dog years out of first place in the National League East, and yet the high-profile Stupid Met Tricks of Bobby Bonilla ("I'll hurt you"), Bret Saberhagen (I'll squirt you) and Vince Coleman (Honey, I blew up the kid) have allowed the Yankees to pursue a pennant in relative peace.
"I think the media thinks that we're boring," posits designated hitter Danny Tartabull, who led the Yankees with 24 home runs and 77 RBIs at week's end. "And that's because we don't fight, bitch or moan. We're just a bunch of old boys who play baseball."
In another time the Yankee cleanup hitter collected Rolls-Royces and was nicknamed Mr. October. Current cleanup hitter Tartabull collects wine in a vast cellar but somehow has not been nicknamed the New York Port Authority. In another time the Yankee manager was a circus geek, biting off the heads of live journalists. Current manager Buck Showalter is the anti-Billy. "I don't want to tick you off," he told a 6'7", 265-pound reporter after the Yankees beat the Royals 3-2 last Saturday. "You're like an eclipse. Uh, is there anything you need from me?"
These guys are the Bronx Sombers. "We have a lot of quiet leaders here," agrees Mike Gallego, New York's superb shortstop. "Donnie's not vocal. He's been labeled the captain, and that's what he is, but he doesn't walk around with stripes on his shoulders."
Instead, Mattingly walks around with lampblack stripes beneath his eyes and a dark stripe of hair beneath his nose. It almost looks as if the black NY that Donnie Baseball wears on his heart has been broken up and reconfigured on his mug.
In the past three seasons Mattingly, whose career batting average was .311 through last year, hasn't hit higher than .288. In that time he has had an allegedly bad attitude, a certifiably bad back and one very bad hair day: On Aug. 15, 1991, Yankee general manager Gene (Stick) Michael ordered Donnie Baseball to get his ears lowered. It was an indignity that Mattingly can smile about today. "My hair?" he says with mock concern, patting his head and checking a mirror. "What's the matter with my hair?"
It is a sign of the captain's stature among his teammates that the clubhouse stereo is in his locker. So is the clubhouse Mr. Coffee machine. Hell, Mr. Coffee himself, Joe DiMaggio, is probably stashed somewhere in Mattingly's locker as well, so diligent is Donnie Baseball about the study of his craft. He prepares for every game as if it were a bar exam. "It's great to come to Yankee Stadium and sec Mattingly and Boggs getting ready," says the whisper-soft-spoken Williams, 24, who had hit safely in 20 straight games through Sunday. "Just to see the excitement they bring to the clubhouse."
Last winter Michael signed three free agents: Stick Inked Pacts with Boggs, left-handed pitcher Jimmy Key (15-4 with a league-low 2.83 ERA) and shortstop Spike Owen (.236). He also made trades for lefthanded pitcher Jim Abbott (9-10, 4.03 ERA) and rightfielder Paul O'Neill (.311, 16 HR, 63 RBIs). Toronto may have the most talent in baseball, but, says Yankee pitcher Scott Kamieniecki, "we feel we have a better team."
Though that team might not thrill everyone, the Yankees, like Canada and baseball, are boring only to boring people. Their season has been anything but. On June 11, for instance, hundreds of sea gulls descended Hitchcockianly upon the Yankees during a game at Milwaukee. "The birds are in play," Showalter informed his team after consulting with the umpires. "Just play it off the bird."
On Aug. 14 rookie pitcher Domingo Jean, who hails from the Dominican Republic, got stuck in traffic coming in from New Jersey on the George Washington Bridge. Fearing that he would be late for his second major league start, Jean bolted from his cab, jogged across the bridge, trolled the Washington Heights neighborhood on the other side and finally persuaded a sympathetic Venezuelan named Chino to drive him to Yankee Stadium. Jean Hurled, Yanks Downed O's.
One day later the Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles were tied at zero in the eighth inning when Mattingly hit a drive to deep rightfieid. Bleacherite Tim McKenzie, 16, of Middletown, Conn., leaned over the railing and robbed Oriole outfielder Mark McLemore of the ball, giving the Yankees a 1-0 win. Just play it off the Bird, indeed.
"This is fun," Don Arthur Mattingly says. "It's fun being competitive. It's fun winning. It's fun doing what we're doing right now."
Right now, the conductor of the northbound D train is calling, "Next stop, Uh-Hunnert-and-Sixty-Foist Street! Yankee Stadium! Let's go, Yanks! Numba One!"
And there, inside, is Donnie Baseball. In a Flag Race.