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Resurrection of the Hair Issue Is More Than a Bit Curious

NEWSDAY

In the first flush of baseball ownership, George Steinbrenner settled into a box seat at Municipal Stadium. It was May, 1973, and he was on hand to observe his newest possession, the New York Yankees, battle the Indians in his hometown of Cleveland. His pride was ruffled by the appearance of the team whose purchase he had orchestrated four months earlier.

As a man born to lead, Steinbrenner wasted no time writing a note, which was passed into the dugout where Ralph Houk presided. It instructed the manager to tell the Yankees that their hair was not sufficiently neat to pass the owner’s inspection and it identified several players in particular need of a trim. What infuriated the players and contributed to his image as Hair Steinbrenner was his failure to name names, perhaps because he hadn’t taken the trouble to learn them. Instead, he referred to them by their uniform numbers.

Those numbers included 17, a shortstop otherwise known as Gene Michael. Ironically, here we are in the midst of another chapter in Yankee hairjinks and, with Steinbrenner ostensibly reduced to the role of distant spectator, Michael is being painted as the villain, the latest in a line of Yankee clippers. Although it was Manager Stump Merrill who benched Don Mattingly Thursday for his refusal to shear his locks, the team captain charged that it was a matter of Michael, now the general manager, wanting the players to look alike and think alike.

This would appear to be a strange time to resurrect the issue of grooming in professional sports, unless the Yankees are interested in calling attention to the 22nd anniversary of Woodstock this weekend. Not only do fewer than 50 games remain in the season but 1991 hardly qualifies as the Age of Aquarius. Yes, the back of Mattingly’s hair flows beyond the range of his baseball cap but it is well short of the style favored by Dennis Eckersley of the three-time American League champion Oakland Athletics and Tim Burke, the reliever recently acquired by the circumspect New York Mets, among others.

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“I want to see the skin above the collar on the backs of their necks,” Steinbrenner said upon his return to office following a suspension from baseball for an illegal campaign contribution. And he had signs to that effect posted in the clubhouse.

But that was a different era, an age when people divided themselves by clothing and headdress. Recall that when the A’s opposed the Cincinnati Reds in the 1972 World Series, it was billed as the Hairs against the Squares. Underneath it all, of course, they were just baseball players. The A’s had responded to Charlie Finley’s challenge to grow moustaches while the Reds were not permitted to wear facial hair.

Yet, there was Merrill, whose head is covered by wisps of white, lecturing on the subject Thursday. "(Mattingly) asked me if he was in the lineup, and I asked him if he would get his hair cut,” the manager said. “He said no, so I told him he would not be in the lineup. Why have rules if you don’t enforce them?” The rules, according to Merrill, called for hair to be “neat and trim and not too long.”

The choice of Mattingly as a test case is curious. For years, he has been the model Yankee, the one player even Steinbrenner was reluctant to criticize (other than the time he had the affrontery to break a record for homers in consecutive games and the time he wanted a lucrative long-term contract). This was no rebel, with or without a cause.

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If anything, he wasn’t outspoken enough for some people’s tastes. That has changed to a degree this year as Mattingly was pushed to verbally discharge the duties of captain. When the team was floudering earlier in the season, he pined aloud for the Boss. It wasn’t long thereafter that the Yankees began to play exciting baseball, lifting the gloom that had permeated the Bronx since the start of the 1990 season. But the Bombers have sagged since the All-Star break, falling behind the Boston Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers and losing all contact with the division-leading Toronto Blue Jays.

Additionally, Mattingly’s back has flared anew. The Yankees considered disabling him after a rain-aborted effort on Friday night, but he talked the club out of a hasty decision and, after sitting out three of the Yankees’ four games in two days against the Detroit Tigers, he delivered a game-tying pinch hit in the nightcap Sunday. He was back in the starting lineup for the first game of Tuesday night’s doubleheader but was ejected in the first inning following an uncharacteristic tirade against home plate umpire Joe Brinkman.

Mattingly has been frustrated for some time, limited by his own physical condition and the deterioration of the supporting cast. Exactly how frustrated wasn’t clear until he noted after Thursday’s incident that he had asked to be traded two months ago. “Maybe I don’t fit into the organization anymore,” he said. “Maybe this is a way of saying I don’t fit into the organization.”

It’s difficult to accept that Merrill, a manager of limited stature, would risk a confrontation with Mattingly (as well as productive catcher Matt Nokes and the irrepressible Pascual Perez) over such a trifle. Nor does it make more sense for Michael to become a stickler for petty rules after establishing a more positive and relaxed atmosphere at Yankee Stadium. If the Boss hadn’t been muffled by Fay Vincent and been otherwise engaged in measuring the shortcomings of U.S. athletes at the Pan American Games, one might suspect Steinbrenner of attempting to grab the back pages of the tabloids from the catatonic Mets.

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At the expense of ol’ Number 23.


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