Playing with Two Icons:
Donnie and Derek
Nervous. Unsettled. Tense. Concerned. Those were the feelings I had after I was traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the New York Yankees on November 3, 1992— a deal that changed my life and my family’s life for the better in a million ways. But when I first heard that I was traded, I was upset and uncertain. And my wife, Nevalee, was even more distraught. Nevalee and
I met when we were five years old and lived in the same neighborhood, so she had experienced every moment of my life, not just my baseball life, with me. This moment jolted us.
The Reds delivered the news by leaving a message on my home answering machine. Yes, it happened so long ago that we still received voice mail that way. After we listened to each word slowly and carefully, Nevalee was weeping and I was in shock. I had heard a few rumors about possibly being traded, but it was still jarring. We wondered how this move would impact our family and we also thought about how challenging a place New York would be.
I mean . . . New York? Big, noisy, and intimidating New York? I hate to admit this, but do you know what I knew about New York? I knew that the Reds typically stayed at the Hyatt Grand Central hotel on East Forty- Second Street in Manhattan, and I knew how to travel from my room to the lobby to the street to catch the team bus to the Mets ballpark in Queens. I didn’t leave the hotel too often when the Reds played in New York. Greenwich Village? The Upper East Side? The South Bronx? The subway? Those were foreign, almost scary places to me.
While we were still processing the news, Gene Michael, the Yankees’ general manager, called and put me at ease about my new challenge and made me excited about the idea of playing for the Yankees. Michael— who was known as Stick because he was lean enough to hide behind a foul pole— talked fast, but more importantly, he spoke enthusiastically and passionately about making the Yankees a winning team. I could sense how much he and the Yankees wanted me, and that meant a lot.
“You’re going to be the perfect fit for us,” Stick told me. “We’re in the process of turning this thing around and you’re going to be a big part of making that happen. We need a lefthanded
hitter like you at Yankee Stadium.” Hitting. Once Stick mentioned hitting and discussed how I would fit in, he had uttered the enticing words that quickly got my attention. Stick told me that he appreciated how I hit the ball to all fields and that the Yankees didn’t need me to be a prolific home-run hitter. That was as important as anything he could have said to me that day, even more important than where he thought I should live in New York. Instantly, I was envisioning how I would dig my spikes into the batter’s box at the Stadium. I knew that my new organization was going to let me swing the bat the way I wanted, not the way Lou Piniella wanted me to hit with the Reds.
The Yankees, who are the most storied and successful franchise in baseball history, hadn’t been competitive for several seasons. They lost 95 games in 1990, they lost 91 in 1991, and after Buck Showalter replaced Stump Merrill as manager in 1992, they went 76‑86. But as I would soon learn, Stick and Buck had a plan for changing the culture around the Yankees. They wanted quality veterans who were accountable and who cared more about the team than themselves, they wanted durable pitchers who didn’t complain, they wanted to fortify the team through the farm system, and they wanted the Yankees to be a destination for free agents again. Within six weeks of my trade, the Yankees signed third baseman Wade Boggs and pitcher Jimmy Key to free-agent contracts and acquired pitcher Jim Abbott from the Angels. Stick also tried valiantly to sign superstars Barry Bonds and Greg Maddux, but Bonds demanded a sixth year, so the Yankees pulled their offer, and Maddux took less money to join the Atlanta Braves. Despite all that, Stick and Buck kept making shrewd decisions and proved how serious they were about this turnaround.
When Stick watched me with the Reds, I’m so thankful he saw the hitter he believed I could be. I could spray line drives all around the stadium, I could play a Gold Glove-caliber defense in the outfield, and I could even poke some shots into the right-field seats, but I wasn’t a swing-from-your-heels home-run hitter. I hit 28 homers and had an .827 OPS with the 1991 Reds, both career highs at the time, and, obviously that was a memorable season. But I also hit .256, I struck out a career-worst 107 times, and I repeatedly felt uncomfortable because of my hitting disagreements with Lou.
“Stick was great at figuring out that someone who might have been perceived as having a problem elsewhere, well, the problem really wasn’t that big of a deal,” said Showalter. “Basically, Paul O’Neill and Lou Piniella had problems. Stick and Lou were close friends and Stick knew Lou like the back of his hand. Stick told me that he also knew me well and he thought that Paul and I would be perfect together. I thought so, too.”
I never considered myself a problem player in Cincinnati, but Buck pretty much nailed it in describing how the trade occurred. Heck, even Lou, who left the Reds one month before they traded me to New York, told Stick that he should make the deal: “After I had left there and I went to manage in Seattle or wherever I was, Stick called me and told me he could trade O’Neill for Roberto Kelly,” Piniella said. “I said, ‘What are you waiting for? This guy will be a natural in Yankee Stadium with the short porch. The fans in New York like a little fire and they like a guy who shows his emotions. I told him the fans in New York would love this guy.’ ”
As Stick discussed how the Yankees envisioned their 1993 lineup, he mentioned Bernie Williams, Danny Tartabull, Don Mattingly, Wade Boggs, Mike Stanley, and me being the mainstays. Stick compared me to Mattingly by saying that Donnie liked to smash hits to every part of the field and considered himself more of a doubles hitter than a home-run hitter. I was pleasantly surprised to hear Stick compare my hitting to Mattingly’s style. From afar, I had always admired Mattingly as a hitter. He was strong, smart, and resilient and always seemed to have a dirty uniform. I’ve never seen a player who looked better with lamp black under his eyes than Mattingly. Obviously, that had nothing to do with the type of extraordinary hitter he was, but Donnie, to me, always looked like the player who would be cast in a movie about a superb and selfless player.
In the casting meeting for my imaginary movie, one movie person with scant baseball knowledge would say, “We need a guy who looks like he eats, sleeps, and dreams baseball, who his teammates respect and admire, and who the fans adore because of how hard he plays and how much he cares.” Then I imagine the knowledgeable baseball people who were in the meeting would all respond, “So, we need Mattingly.”
I needed Mattingly, too—I desperately wanted to talk hitting with him. I didn’t call him Don or Donnie too often. As a sign of respect, I called Mattingly “Cap” because he was the Yankees’ devoted captain, he was our leader, and he was the player who had done it all and seen it all in New York. Mattingly won the 1985 Most Valuable Player Award, he had won an armful of Gold Glove Awards for his slick play at first, and he had experienced the good and the bad of playing in New York. Tabloid hero one day. Tabloid goat the next. But with Donnie, it was mostly very, very good. In my opinion, Mattingly was the best player in the majors from 1984 to 1987, when his season averages were: .337 batting average, 30 homers, 121 runs batted in, 211 hits, and an OPS of .941. He might have been the best player in other seasons, too, but in those seasons, it wasn’t a contest. He finished fifth, first, second, and seventh in MVP voting in those four seasons.
I loved to discuss the intricacies of hitting with Donnie because he was a student of the game (and a teacher, too), he was a left-handed batter like me, he had seen more of the American League pitchers than me, and he had immense experience to draw on. If a certain pitcher threw Mattingly a slider in a 3‑1 count, I wanted to know about it and I wanted to know what Donnie thought about that. Now, I must stress, we were definitely different hitters— he crouched more in his stance and used a weight shift to produce power, while I stood more upright and used my leg kick for timing— but there were enough similarities for us to share notes and make each other better.
The clubhouse at old Yankee Stadium was on the first-base side of the field, a haven of about forty lockers stretched along all four walls with white frieze trim filling the room. When I exited the clubhouse, I would walk straight ahead and down a runway to get to the field. There was a blue-and-white sign hanging from the ceiling with a Joe DiMaggio quote that said, “I want to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee.” I strolled down that dugout runway for nine seasons and each trip was more exciting than the last one.
But if I made a right turn after leaving the clubhouse, that path would take me to my second favorite spot at the Stadium: the indoor batting cages under the right-field stands. After making the right out of the clubhouse, I would walk along a narrow hallway— which was about twelve feet wide and had ceilings so low that I sometimes felt I would hit my head— and kept walking until I reached a dead end. I made the walk a thousand times, bat and batting gloves in hand and an urgency to my step. I loved to hit, but not just in games. I loved to talk hitting, practice hitting, and think hitting.
Guess who was always in the batting cage with me? The Captain.
Inside those black-netted cages, there was a thin, green turf surface and one pitching machine that was known as an Iron Mike. The blue paint seemed to peel off the walls in this room a little more each day. There were cracks in the ceiling and there never seemed to be enough folding chairs for all of the waiting hitters. But for me and Cap, this modest, dingy place was our sanctuary.