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SSTN Interviews Author Chris Donnelly

We are here today with Chris Donnelly, published author of three baseball books:

· Doc, Donnie, the Kid, and Billy Brawl: How the 1985 Mets and Yankees Fought for New York’s Baseball Soul

· How the Yankees Explain New York

· Baseball’s Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners and the 1995 Matchup That Changed History

Chris is a life-long resident of New Jersey whose life outside of publishing includes having worked in the administrations of three New Jersey governors, in the New Jersey legislature, and currently for a public affairs firm called Kivvit. He’s been a devoted fan of baseball since he was five and has seen a game at 39 MLB stadiums, including all 30 current stadiums (not counting the new ballpark in Arlington since it technically hasn’t opened yet).

Perhaps most importantly, Chris is a former student of mine back from the Yankee dynasty days of the late ‘90s when I served as the Vice Principal of Pompton Lakes High School.

Chris, it is great to have this discussion with you. Thanks for coming to our blog.

My pleasure Mr. Semendinger (sorry, old habit). Thanks for having me.

Please begin by telling us a little about each of your books.

My first book was Baseball’s Greatest Series. As a Yankee fan born in the early 80s, I started watching the team during a period of time when they were less than stellar. In fact, my first vivid memory of the Yankees, outside of my first game in 1988, is watching Andy Hawkins pitch and lose a no-hitter in Chicago in 1990.

I remember that if a Yankees player hit two home runs in a game, that felt like the highlight of the season.

So watching in those early 90s years was rough. But that made it all the more enjoyable when they reached the postseason in 1995 as the first ever American League wildcard. They played the Seattle Mariners in the Division Series and lost in five games. Those five games, however, were incredible. From Don Mattingly’s swan song to Edgar’s series winning double, it had everything you could possibly want in a postseason series. Four of the five games either ended in a walk-off or with the tying or winning run on base. The series set numerous postseason records, mostly on the offensive side, and was the coming out party for Mariano Rivera. Moreover, both teams overcame huge mid-season deficits to make the playoffs.

It wasn’t just the action on the field though. Many of the Yankees were free agents after the 1995 season and this series determined the future of so many on that team including the manager, Buck Showalter, the general manager, Gene Michael, Mattingly, and several other key players. The Mariners, meanwhile, were fighting for their literal existence in Seattle, as team ownership had said they were moving the team to Tampa if they could not get a new stadium (it was no idle threat…the Tampa Chamber of Commerce was already providing players with information about local schools and places to live). They needed to win that series in order to keep enough momentum going for the state legislature to find the funding for a new stadium.

Despite the heartbreaking way in which the Yankees lost that series, it still left a huge impression on me. I had always thought about writing a book on it, but never actually took any steps to do so. Then one day I was out to dinner with my girlfriend (now my wife) and mentioned it to her. She said go for it: that I should just start doing it and figure it out as I went along. So that night I went home and started researching and writing. Three and a half years later, Baseball’s Greatest Series came out.

How The Yankees Explain New York was my second book. It looks at the similarities between the history of the Yankees and the history of New York City itself. The premise was brought to me by a publisher and once I started digging a little deeper it really was amazing how the history of both the team and the city ran on parallel tracks or matched each other in various ways. You had Boss Tweed and The Boss, George Steinbrenner. You had the decay of the city in the 1980s and the decay of the franchise during that same time period, with both undergoing a rebirth in the 1990s. From publicity stunts to immortalizing those who might otherwise be forgotten by history for seemingly trivial achievements, I found that the history of the Yankees really is the history of the city.

My third book, which came out last year, is Doc, Donnie, The Kid and Billy Brawl: How the 1985 Mets and Yankees Fought For Baseball’s Soul. This idea came to me while I was writing my first book. As I dug a little deeper into the Yankees’ history in the 1980s, I saw how their ultimate decline in that decade timed perfectly with the Mets’ ascension. And the better the Mets got, the more obsessed George Steinbrenner became with them. That fascinated me and I wanted to write about the fight for the city, for the heart of the fans.

It just so happened that the moment where both teams intersected, the Yankees going down and the Mets going up, was in the middle of the decade, 1985. The Mets won 98 games that season, the Yankees won 97 (the Yankees only played 161 games). Both teams were eliminated from playoff contention on the second to last day of the season. It was, by far, the closest New York had come to a Subway Series since 1956.

Just as interesting as the end result, however, was the way both teams got there. The Yankees were starting to wilt under the firm hand of George Steinbrenner, who grew more manic as the Mets got better. He fired manager Yogi Berra after 16 games and brought Billy Martin back for a fourth term as manager. As always happened with Billy, the team got better but ultimately his drinking got the better of him. Martin got into fights on two consecutive nights in September in Baltimore, first with a fan that Martin thought Steinbrenner had planted to get Billy fired, and then with one of his pitcher’s, Ed Whitson. Steinbrenner famously called Winfield “Mr. May” that September and spent portions of the season blasting his players, including Don Mattingly, who was on his way to winning the MVP. All of this happened while Phil Niekro was trying to chase down his 300th career victory.

The Mets, meanwhile, were young, exciting and any inner turmoil they had only served to make them more, not less interesting. They had Strawberry and Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez. Then they had Dwight Gooden, whose 1985 season is one of the single greatest seasons any pitcher has ever had. Meanwhile the trade for Carter, which I consider the most important in team history, signaled to the rest of the league that Mets were no longer going to be doormat for other teams: rather, they were going to be THE team to beat in the National League. The trade changed the balance of power both in baseball and in New York City throughout the rest of the ‘80s.

Currently, I am working on my fourth book, which will essentially serve as a sequel to Doc, Donnie, The Kid and Billy Brawl. It will look at the Yankees and Mets throughout the 1990s and how and why (outside of obviously the championships) New York reverted back to being a Yankees’ town. It will end with the Subway Series, the ultimate contest for the heart of New York baseball fans.

I can’t wait to see it!

How can fans buy copies of your books?

They are all available on Amazon or online at Barnes and Noble and Doc, Donnie, The Kid and Billy Brawl is available in store at Barnes and Noble.

Most authors love all their books, which is understandable. Which book, though, was the most fun to write? Why?

Baseball’s Greatest Series, in large part because it was such a new experience. Also, it was a little surreal talking to players that I had watched growing up and hearing them explain moments and situations that I remembered vividly as a kid. It was also enlightening because when you talk to players, you learn so much more about the game and its little intricacies, like hearing Wade Boggs – 15 years after the fact – explain to me in detail how he approached an at-bat against Chris Bosio in Game 1 of the Division Series. Then you go back and watch the video and see Boggs’ actions in that at-bat match his description to a tee.

Which book was the most challenging to write? Why?

Doc, Donnie, The Kid and Billy Brawl. I started writing it in 2010. It was rejected by a few publishers and I had another who wanted to completely change the tone and feel of the it, so I passed on their offer. Then my wife and I had two kids and the book had to be put on the shelf for a while. I dusted it off in 2017, found a publisher and dove right back in. That was challenging because I had to go back over all the research I had and what I had already written. So in some ways I was starting all over even though I had done a large portion of the work already.

I know all about that!

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? What steps did you take to make this dream a reality?

I’ve always enjoyed writing. It started as more a cathartic exercise than anything else. When I was younger I would just jot down random thoughts. I wouldn’t call it a diary or journal because it wasn’t a daily or even a weekly thing. There was no pattern to what I wrote, it was as simple as, if I had a thought in my head I wanted to commit to paper, I would write it down. Eventually, you end up with pages and pages of thoughts and the more you write (and the more you read) the better you get at it.

Yankees history is replete with many great moments. Which great moment would you like to write a book about?

Many of the great moments have been already been written about. For me, I enjoy those moments that don’t get much attention, usually because they did not result in a championship. I find the Yankees of the mid-1980s much more fascinating than the Bronx Zoo era championship teams. To a degree, I will probably be writing about those moments more in this next book – things like the Hawkins’ no-hitter, the playoff run against the Blue Jays in ’93, the unsung players and personnel who were pivotal in the team’s transition during the decade, etc.

Paul O’Neill wrote the forward to your very well -researched book How The Yankees Explain New York. How does a writer get a famous ballplayer to agree to write an introduction?

I had interviewed Paul for the first book, Baseball’s Greatest Series and then again for How The Yankees Explain New York. What struck me was how different he is from what many fans probably perceive. I am sure many think of the guy bashing water coolers and yelling at umpires. But during the interviews, he was anything but that. I also thought he encapsulated the theme of the book well. Here was a guy who had some success in Cincinnati but was not a star player. Then he comes to New York, wins over the fans with his style of play and becomes beloved as part of four championship teams. So I literally just called him and asked what he’d think and he agreed immediately. It was incredibly gracious of him and I am and will forever be appreciative of his willingness to write the forward.

In the book and the movie The Natural, the main character wants nothing more than to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” You have been a baseball fan since the late 1980’s. Who was the best player you ever saw?

Ken Griffey, Jr. He was just on a different level and I say that as a Yankee fan who hated him in the 1990s. But my hatred was based on how ridiculously good he was. Every time he came up he seemed to crush the Yankees and, in turn, my spirits. And that swing…it was just so beautiful. Not a lot of motion. No high leg kick. Just the bat exploding straight through the zone.

Our final question is really just a collection of short answers:

What was your favorite baseball team growing up?

The Yankees

Who was your favorite player?

Don Mattingly. I was able to interview him for Baseball’s Greatest Series and then actually got to hang out with him for a little bit at a charity event in Evansville, Indiana. He was incredibly gracious to my wife and me.

That is AWESOME! A dream come true!

What is your most prized collectible?

Wow, this is a tough one. I am sure you mean baseball collectable and I am lucky enough to have some good ones. I have a ’96 Yankees championship poster signed by about 75% of the team and one of the signed baseball’s I have includes Buck O’Neill, who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame more than any other person currently not in. But oddly, my most prized collectible is a signed photo of Richard and Pat Nixon. If you knew my political leanings, you would know how strange that is, but I am absolutely fascinated by that man.

Who is your favorite musical group or artist?

You can’t go wrong with The Beatles.

I 100% agree.

What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?

Pizza from anywhere along the boardwalk down the Jersey Shore works for me.

I wish more people replied as you do. I ask because I keep looking for more great pizza places. The next time you are in Wyckoff, try The Pizza Parlor. It is very very good!

Thank you so much Chris. This was great. I am so glad we connected after all these years. I wish you only success in your writing! Please stay in touch!

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