If Chris Donnelly’s New Book about the 1985 Yankees-Mets Rivalry were New Jersey Politics

New Jersey’s resident baseball historian and veteran operative Chris Donnelly of Kivvit just wrote a new book about baseball called Doc, Donnie, the Kid, and Billy Brawl: How the 1985 Mets and Yankees Fought for New York’s Baseball Soul, and it’s too scrappy a narrative to resist an inevitable comparison to New Jersey politics for the purpose of fulfilling the mission statement of this website.

There are a few different ways one could go with this, but in all of them George Norcross III easily slides into the role of George Steinbrenner, owner of the evil empire that always gets what it wants, and was supposed to be the impregnable operation when the working class Mets began to put something together resembling a threat.

That would make senate President Steve Sweeney Don Mattingly and – maybe – Phil Murphy Dave Winfield.

In the book, Donnelly chronicles the somewhat Mantle-Maris-like rivalry between Mattingly and Winfield for the love of Yankees fans, and along the way dives into Steinbrenner’s irritation with Winfield for failing to perform up to the expectations of the salary the boss paid him to wear pinstripes. Steinbrenner’s competitive and control freakish ways suggest GN3, and Winfield’s refusal to play ball (Steinbrenner might have said in more ways than one) do bear comparisons to Murphy, who cut his teeth at Goldman just as Dave did with the Padres.

But, yeah, ultimately the metaphor defies reason.

Not that New Jersey politics isn’t sufficiently mediocre to warrant comparison to that very suddenly declining version of the New York Yankees, but we miss the premise and essence of Donnelly’s book by considering only the inner workings of the Yankees in the dimensions of New Jersey dysfunction.

After all, the book is about the Yankees versus the Mets.

So, maybe it’s easier to picture John Currie as Doc Gooden, Dick Codey as Davey Johnson, and Lou Stellato as Keith Hernandez. That would make Phil Murphy Gary Carter, the effervescent missing ingredient who came to the Big Apple from Canada to galvanize the Mets and take New York away from the heirs of the House that Ruth Built.

But Carter was good.

Murphy – well, his political enemies at least would say he’s mostly untested at this point.

Yes, the $15 minimum wage was an accomplishment but it was hardly the size of a World Series Championship.

Murphy still hasn’t gone yard enough.

He hasn’t carried a winning team. Neither did Carter and company, of course, until 1986.

In this New Jersey politics iteration of the Yankees versus Mets, the Yankees (yes, an unfortunate choice of teams to play the role of South Jersey, but it’s apt given the level of organization) maintain a decided and apparently unimpeachable upper-hand. There’s no groundwork anyone else can put together this year to really challenge them next.

But what about 2018, couldn’t Murphy spin that result on his watch as the political equivalent of a World Series victory?

He gets in in 2017.

That’s 1985.

Then 2018 happens.

Eleven of 12 Democratic congressional victories. A supposedly wounded Menendez beats up some Republican named Hugin. Victories up and down the state. Visible evidence of people – many of them progressive, independent voters – not political machines, dominant, and demonstrable foundational pieces for Murphy’s own reelection strategy should he choose to run again.

Isn’t that like a 1986 version of the Mets?

Not really. In last year’s federal elections, Murphy merely stood at the head of a parade that was happening without him, much the same way then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker stood at the head of the Obama movement in New Jersey in 2008.  The governor was still struggling at the plate in Trenton, just as Booker was wobbling locally in Newark.

Murphy is still waiting for that championship season in Trenton.

Most say it can’t happen with the power structure currently in place.

Unlike Murphy, the Mets, after all, had the benefit of being able to play in Shea, not Yankees, Stadium.

Then again, New York was the prize.

If the lowly Mets, bullied beyond relevance by the Yanks in their mutual hometown in the late 1970s, could get it together by the mid 1980’s, maybe it could happen for Murphy.

Or maybe Murphy really is just the 1986 Boston Red Sox all over again.

If it all seems like a convoluted comparison – remember this; for all the intensity of competition between the two ball clubs documented in Donnelly’s David Halberstam-like book -much of it fueled by Steinbrenner, the most enjoyable collision occurs between then-Yankees Manager Billy Martin and pitcher Ed Whitson in a hotel in Baltimore.

Billy, of course, was a brawler.

But Whitson knew karate, and over the course of several same-day encounters as the manager tried to get even after the indignity of sustaining the first knockdown when Whitson kicked him in the ribs, a doggedly doomed Billy repeatedly got the worse of the exchanges.

If politics in this state is a game for arsonists who watch other people get hit from angles they can’t see, and pride themselves in the process on never getting their hair mussed amid the suffering of others, there’s no one really like face-first Martin in New Jersey politics.

And that, in the end, is one of the reasons why Donnelly’s book – like baseball – is so great.

Doc, Donnie, the Kid, and Billy Brawl: How the 1985 Mets and Yankees Fought for New York’s Baseball Soul by Chris Donnelly is published by University of Nebraska Press.





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One response to “If Chris Donnelly’s New Book about the 1985 Yankees-Mets Rivalry were New Jersey Politics”

  1. To this day, Eddie Whitson shows his dislike of his Yankee days by refusing to sign baseball memorabilia that shows him in a Yankee uniform.

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