But flashback to the late-80s, and Hall was one of my favorite Yankees. It’s not easy to admit this now, and I wince when I think that I spent several years of my boyhood admiring a disgraceful cancer of a person. He was part of the haphazard collection of futility masquerading as the New York Yankees on WPIX 11 Alive! At seven-thirty each night, I sat riveted as the buoyancy of Scooter Rizutto’s commentary was tested by a relentless parade of cast-offs, has-beens, and over-the-hill prima donnas. It was a franchise whose blueprint for success consisted of chasing after aging superstars and overpaying them through their decline – an M.O. that had already become a vintage George Steinbrenner trait. Now, the excesses and inanity of the past decade had finally culminated in a series of atrociously bad teams and Seinfeld’s most memorable Frank Costanza moment.
The Steinbrenner dogma permeated all levels of the ballclub. As blown-out 35-year-old hamstrings, groins, and rotator cuffs forced an urgency for new blood, the hapless reinforcements brought up from a ravaged farm system quickly revealed their futility. (Which is generally what 7th-rounders are generally expected to reveal.) But that was okay, because there was always another 30-something former All-Star on the horizon that some second-division team was trying to unload. Until this time, the Yankees teams of this 80s weren’t so much bad as they were poorly constructed: while top-heavy with fading sluggers like Jack Clark and Ken Phelps, the pitching staffs were mostly populated by soft-tossing journeymen and AAA cannon fodder.
And yet, Mel Hall’s 1989 acquisition for spare parts represented, at least to some degree, a break from convention at the time. Still only 29, Hall had moderate lefty power – never a detriment at Yankee Stadium. He also possessed versatility in that he could play both corner outfield positions and even centerfield in a pinch – though, by all available measures, horrendously.
Hall’s role, however, was ill defined from the start. With a Yankees outfield that was already set going into the ’89 campaign, he would initially serve as an expensive, defensively challenged bench player whose splits suggested that most halfway decent pitchers could more or less have their way with him, irrespective of their handed-ness. More ominously, over his previous two seasons, he had posted a combined 1.1 WAR, and he hadn’t seen the fun side of 100 OPS+ since Reaganomics.
But after seeing him play, I didn’t care about any of that. Hall had actually been on my radar since the previous season, when I watched him uncoil one of the coolest homerun strokes I’d ever seen off Yankees ace-by-default Rick Rhoden. And as I write this now, I can’t think of any bigger indictment of teenage judgment than my believing that launching a bomb off the shell of Rick Rhoden was impressive.
Being a Wiffle Ball connoisseur of idiosyncratic batting stances was probably what got me on the Mel Hall bandwagon to begin with. Hall straddled the batter’s box with a wide-open lefty gait, his back leg crouched at a 90 degree angle and his front foot yawning to the right, all the way on the opposite side of the box. It was an impossible stance, one that couldn’t possibly allow for enough torque or drive to generate any power, and I pictured an exasperated high school coach pleading with an insufferably stubborn teenage version of Hall to bag it altogether. So in my mind, it was also a defiant stance, making it all the more appealing.
Regardless, normal people couldn’t hit like this. I know. I tried. And when my Babe Ruth coach caught my awkward rendition of the cocky leftfielder in a live game, he informed me that a.) I needed to pull my head out of my ass, and that b.) I had enough trouble hitting like myself, much less a freaking Yankee. Tough love.
At that point, it wasn’t about imitating a cool stance anymore. It was about being a rebel by association (or so I thought), about channeling another person’s cool confidence to help alleviate my own gnawing feelings of athletic ineptitude and utter dorkiness.
A few days after my first failed attempt at mimicking the Yankees fourth outfielder, I summoned up the nerve to give it another go. It happened in the late innings of a thumping at the hands of Kiwanis Club, and I was mired in one of my 0-for-infinity slumps. There was literally nothing to lose.
I waited until halfway through the at-bat before dropping into the inimitable crouch. The second I descended, I knew I’d nailed it: The gait, the crouch, the “Bring the heat, meat” bat waggle – all perfect. The kid on the mound paused before going into his windup, glancing at me as if to say, “Mel Hall? Really?”
Really. But two pitches later, I was a strikeout victim slogging my way back to the dugout under the glare of my coach and the simmering contempt of my teammates. As I descended the dugout steps, I overheard a grown woman in the stands mutter, “He thinks he’s black.”
I didn’t know this, but my dad had seen everything from the stands. He’d left work early enough to catch the last few innings of the game and to give me a ride home. Afterwards, in the parking lot, he polished off a concession stand hot dog as I shoved my 10-speed into his trunk. He knew I was smack in my Mel Hall phase but couldn’t for the life of him understand why. Breaking the uncomfortable silence, he said, “Jim Rice is who you should be looking at: balanced stance; smooth, level swing; quiet bat.” He loved Jim Rice and the Red Sox, which made for a bumpy ride between us at times. He was also right, of course, but I’d be damned if I’d ever emulate a Red Sock, future Hall of Famer or not.
On the drive home my dad offered a more palatable solution: “What about Mattingly? Why not try to hit like him?”
It was a fair point. I did love Donnie Baseball, but so did everyone else. Mattingly was the Yankees. In contrast, Mel Hall was a placeholder on a downtrodden team, a semi-talented nobody. To my adolescent eyes, he was an outlaw, a mercenary, and a rogue hell bent on proving everyone wrong.
As we pulled up to my house, I grudgingly ended my seven-minute vow of silence. “Mel Hall’s cool,” I blurted. They were the most misguided words I’d ever spoken.