An Interview With “Baseball’s Greatest Series” Author Chris Donnelly

After receiving word of Chris Donnelly’s book on the 1995 ALDS, Baseball’s Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners, and the 1995 Matchup That Changed History, I wrote a quick summary of his book and printed an excerpt describing Edgar Martinez’s grand slam in game 4. I’ve followed up by asking Chris some questions about his project of researching the ALDS and writing the book on it. Here’s our exchange:

Arne: You came to this project as a Yankees fan, right? I’ve always assumed this ALDS was the province of Mariner fans, so I’m curious to find out why you decided to write about it from over in New Jersey.

Chris: I was born in 1981 so the ’95 series was the first time I had seen the Yankees make the playoffs. They have seemingly made it to the postseason every year since, but back in ’95, this was a huge deal in NYC. Plus, like many Yankee fans, Don Mattingly was by far my favorite player, so there was an overwhelming sense of relief that he finally made the postseason. The games were beyond anything baseball fans could have hoped for and despite the outcome, I often thought back upon the series and how exciting it all was. As I got older, I learned more and more about it and found there was more to the story than just the five games, so I thought it would make for a good book.

Arne: Your book’s to a large extent about the swan song of Don Mattingly. Could you talk a little bit about how he figured in the ALDS. It seems that him striking out three times against Randy Johnson in game 3 was an emotional turning point in the series.

Chris: I think for many Yankee fans, it was almost more about Don Mattingly making the playoffs and winning the World Series than about the Yankees doing so. Very few people knew for certain if he was returning after that season, so for fans, it became crucial that the Yankees win it then and there. Additionally, his performance during the series (10 hits, 6 RBI and a home run) reminded many of the dominating player he had been during the 1980s. Mattingly was the only left handed batter in the lineup against Johnson, showing Showalter’s faith in him. Unfortunately, it did not work out well for Mattingly and even Seattle fans, who had been mostly cordial to him, began taunting him after the three strikeout performance.

Arne: The N.Y. vs. Seattle baseball dynamic really got going in ’95, then it became a recurring rivalry for the next six years. And of course a lot of Mariner fans are still disgusted by Alex Rodriguez leaving town, so he’s helped make the Yankees a continuing object of dislike in the Northwest. It’s somewhat well known here that Seattle’s first name was “New York Alki,” or “New York by and by,” and Seattle still seems to emulate itself on New York City in some ways. What are your thoughts on the sports rivalry between the two cities?

Chris: From 1995 to 2001, the Yankees-Mariners was possibly the best rivalry in baseball. Most of that was driven by the Division Series, but you had dynamic players on both sides and there were always NY/Seattle connections, whether it be Lou Piniella, Tino Martinez, Jay Buhner, or Luis Sojo. I think just about every city takes pride in defeating the Yankees, but especially Seattle because they had a one up on everyone because of what happened in ’95.

Arne: What take does the average Yankee fan have on the ’95 ALDS?

Chris: I don’t want to speak for all fans, but for me it’s mostly bittersweet. I think the Yankees had an excellent chance of beating the Indians in the ALCS that year and getting to the World Series. Had they done so, it would have been very difficult for Steinbrenner not to have brought back Buck Showalter and other members of the team. It was disappointing for fans that off season to slowly see their favorite players start leaving for other teams, and then to not have Mattingly return was almost unthinkable. Yet the Yankee dynasty of ’96-’01 does not happen if the Yankees don’t lose that series, so in a twisted way, you almost seem grateful that Edgar hit that double (although the pain of watching that and reliving the moment, as a Yankee fan, never goes away).

Arne: What do you think was the biggest mistake the Yankees made during ALDS to help the Mariners come back?

Chris: I wouldn’t call it a mistake, but not utilizing Mariano Rivera. It’s not a mistake because no one knew just what Rivera brought to the table. He hadn’t pitched well during the regular season, and yet he dominated Seattle in the playoffs. Had Showalter known then what we all know now (a fact Buck admits), Rivera would have been brought in sooner in Game 5, possibly pitched out of that 8th inning jam without letting the Mariners tie the game, and today we would be talking about the Tampa Bay Mariners. But it would be unfair to blame Showalter for that because no one had a clue and anyone who says otherwise is simply not telling the truth.

Arne: I’ve always thought Yankee fans have a grudge against Randy Johnson because of his feats in the ALDS and the ’01 World Series, and because he then didn’t do too well in New York. Do you agree?

Chris: Again, I don’t want to speak for all fans, but I think that is probably fair. What is odd about that is that the Yankees actually performed very well historically against Johnson during the regular season. I don’t have the exact stats, but I believe few teams did better. But when it came playoff time, he simply dominated them in two separate years. Johnson came to NY with high expectations and, in the minds of fans anyway, never lived up to them.

Arne: How did the interviews for the book go? Who did you talk to, what did they say, and what were your impressions of them?

Chris: I spoke to approximately 70 people for the book. They ranged from umpires, to team personnel, people who had been on the teams in the ’80s, and of course, the coaches, managers and players who were there in ’95. Just about everyone was very supportive of the concept and for those who took part in the series, they all loved talking about the experience (even the Yankees). On the NY side, many of those guys had great memories of their teammates and coaches, many of whom they never played with again after the Game 5 loss. For Seattle, most of the players simply couldn’t stop talking about what a great experience it was and how Seattle baseball really came to life that year.

Arne: Along the same lines, which Mariner players and/or officials were the most interesting to research and to interview?

Chris: Researching the Mariners’ early history was fun because, frankly, the team was so bad. They were just so many oddities that I kept discovering, like Wills trying to make the batter’s box bigger, or a guy who gave up a home run on the first pitch he threw in the majors. Everyone I interviewed, and I sincerely mean this, was fantastic. No one hesitated to share stories or memories. Jay Buhner and Chris Bosio stick out most of all because I spent the most time with them. They are both open and frank guys who not only shared stories of the series, but also gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation for little aspects of the game (how to pitch certain hitters, what to do against a David Cone slider, etc.).

Arne: The trade of Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson after the ’95 season was, along with the trade of Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe two years later, one of the great Mariner missteps that kept the team from doing more with its amazing talent in the ’90s. Did you have the chance to talk with Nelson and/or Martinez about the trade? Also, did any of the Mariners officials you talked with describe the reasoning behind it?

Chris: While I was able to interview more than half of the players who took part in the series, unfortunately, Tino and Jeff Nelson were not among them. Obviously, from the Yankees side, the trade became necessary once Don Mattingly made clear he was not returning for 1996.

Arne: There were so many themes and subtexts to the Mariners/Yankees rivalry in the ’90s and early ’00s, with all the players, and Piniella, having experience with both teams in their careers, and the re-emergence of the Yankees as a team good enough to be worthy of rooting against even if you were three thousand miles away. What was the attitude toward those Mariner teams in and around New York City?

Chris: I think Yankee fans always held a resentment against the Mariners for what happened in ’95, at least until the 2000 and or 2001 seasons. The Kingdome always seemed to be a nightmare for the Yankees, and players like Junior, Edgar and Randy Johnson were easy for New Yorkers to pick out as villains because they handled the Yankees well. After the 2000 and ’01 ALCS, I think that bitterness died away, not just because the Yankees won those series, but because so many of the key players were gone from both teams.

Arne: Stepping away from the ’95 ALDS for a final question, how do you remember the ’01 ALCS? It’s obviously overshadowed by that year’s World Series, but that was such a uniquely important and moving time, to have playoff baseball about 10 miles north of the World Trade Center site.

Chris: That entire playoff run for the Yankees was obviously a special moment in New York. It seemed like the one time when people, at least not collectively for a change, weren’t praying for the Yankees not to win again. The Yankees played many fantastic games that postseason, including Game 4 against Seattle, and to be able to clinch the League Championship at home meant a lot to the city that year. Additionally, at least from the fans’ perspective, the Yankees were trying to prevent the 116-win Mariners from eclipsing the ’98 Yankees as perhaps the greatest single season team in history, so to beat them and maintain that aura was especially satisfying.

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One thought on “An Interview With “Baseball’s Greatest Series” Author Chris Donnelly

  1. Pingback: Oh, The Pain…It’s Now A Book! | WasWatching.com

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