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Don Mattingly reflects on haircut benching

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George Steinbrenner was suspended from day-to-day activities with the Yankees in 1991, but his influence could still be felt.
George Steinbrenner was suspended from day-to-day activities with the Yankees in 1991, but his influence could still be felt.
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LOS ANGELES -- Friday marked an anniversary of sorts for Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who 23 years earlier found himself benched as a player with the Yankees in New York. Mattingly's violation: not cutting his hair.

"I'll tell you what my main gripe was. Everybody - well I shouldn't say everybody - but a lot of guys had long hair," Mattingly remembered on Friday. "That was my fight right there."

Well not quite. He was one of four Yankees suspended by manager Stump Merrill, along with catcher Matt Nokes and pitchers Pascual Perez and Steve Farr.

"That was propaganda," Mattingly jokingly interrupted as I reminded him of the other victims of the Yankees archaic rule.

Nokes agreed to cut his hair and started against the Royals on Aug. 15. Farr was not needed in relief, and Perez acquiesced before his scheduled start the next day.

Mattingly did too, but for Aug. 15 he chose to take a stand, by sitting.

Mattingly at this point was closer to the beginning of the decline phase of his career. From 1984-89 he was one of the very best players in baseball, hitting .327/.372/.530, averaging 43 doubles and 27 home runs per year while playing Gold Glove defense at first base.

Back injuries sapped Mattingly's power, and was hitting .305/.357/.414 with seven home runs and 23 doubles at the time of the benching. He would end the season with nine home runs.

Those Yankees would lose 91 games in 1991, the third of four straight losing seasons for New York in the Alvaro Espinoza era. Mattingly, the team's star player in the first year of a five-year, $19.3 million contract, was understandably unhappy, and the benching set him off.

From Jack Curry's game story in the New York Times:

"Maybe I don't belong in the organization anymore," Mattingly told reporters after the Yankees had defeated the Royals, 5-1, without him. "I talked to him about moving me earlier in the year. He said we'll talk at the end of the year. Maybe this is their way of saying we don't need you anymore."

Mattingly had harsh words for general manager Gene Michael, nicknamed Stick, back when baseball teams could be run by men named Stump and Stick.

"It's kind of silly to me, but we're not winning and this is Stick's club," said Mattingly, who said he had his hair trimmed two weeks ago by the bullpen catcher, Carl Taylor. "He wants an organization that will be puppets for him and do what he wants."

"It's pretty clear where everything comes from," Mattingly said.

"If Stick wants the players to do exactly what he says, then he should be the pitching coach, batting coach and fielding coach. Then come down here and be a part of it. But take part of the blame, too."

Mattingly was not traded, and played out his contract, then retired after the 1995 season at age 34.

Now he manages a team full of various hairstyles and abundant facial hair. The Dodgers have no such grooming rules. Justin Turner, whose hair is nearly as long today as Mattingly's was in 1991, said when he played with the Orioles they had rules regarding facial hair, and that in the minors pretty much across the board facial hair isn't allowed. Scott Van Slyke, his face full of arguably the fullest beard on the team, similarly recalled a minors edict that anything beyond two days of growth must be shaved.

On Friday, 23 years removed from his angry day, Mattingly reflected on his benching.

"My biggest issue that day was 'If you don't get your haircut today, you don't play,' and I was at the ballpark. Well, don't tell me two days ago," Mattingly said. "If you tell me today, 'If you don't have it cut by tomorrow, you won't play,' I would have got it cut."

The story does have a happy postscript. Mattingly cut his hair the next day, and auctioned off the sheared locks for $3,000 for charity.

Mattingly also followed up the benching with a seven-game hitting streak, hitting .357 (10-for-28) with three doubles.

"Yeah!" Mattingly exclaimed on Friday. "I was mad."