We all know by now that Larry David’s voice became the voice of George Steinbrenner on “Seinfeld,” even though all we ever saw of the Steinbrenner character was the back of another actor’s head. And by now we know what a huge Mets fan Jerry Seinfeld is. David, though, has been a Yankees fan his whole life, a kid who became a Mickey Mantle fan in the 1950s and made his first trip to the old Yankee Stadium in 1954.
I asked him on Sunday what he remembered about his first game there.
“Night game against the Orioles,” he said. “Can’t remember much about the game other than this: Walking up the ramp and seeing that field for the first time.”
David was 7 years old. It was a long time ago. But the guy who helped create “Seinfeld” with Jerry Seinfeld and who has now done 10 hilarious seasons of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” for HBO is like the rest of us: You never forget your first time at a big league ballpark. Those memories seem more important to everybody right now with the season on hold.
David was a Yankees fan as a kid, even being from Brooklyn, because his older brother was. Now he is a tortured Jets fan. He is a tortured Knicks fan still, even from Southern California. But the Yankees were his first love. So I wanted to know who were his favorite Yankees of all time, and who he would put in the Top 5 of the ones he most loved to watch play.
“First two are easy,” he said. “Mantle. Mattingly.”
He took some time coming up with the other three on his list, not necessarily the greatest Yankees of all time. Just the ones he liked the best. So first he just listed as many of them as he could, in no particular order:
Bill (Moose) Skowron.
Sweet Lou Piniella.
But because Larry David is a fan, and a passionate fan, one with a memory who knows what he is talking about when he talks about baseball, he occasionally remembers the heartbreaks as vividly as he remembers the triumphs. And, let’s face it, there have been more triumphs for his Yankees than heartbreaks since he made that first trip to the ballpark in 1954 from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
Since 1954, David’s Yankees have won 11 World Series and played in nine others. But there are still losses he can’t let go. Or just won’t let go. It is why he still has a beef with the great Mariano Rivera, one of the most famous and successful and elegant Yankees of them all, one who sometimes looked like the Babe Ruth of closers, and the only player to be unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame (Jeter missed by a single vote).
“I still can’t forgive Rivera for blowing the ’97 playoffs to the Indians,” David said.
The Yankees were in the eighth inning of Game 4, that close to winning the American League Division Series, when Rivera gave up a game-tying home run to Sandy Alomar Jr. The Indians won the game in the ninth, then won Game 5 the next night.
“I’ll let [Rivera] slide on the [Luis] Gonzalez World Series hit in 2001 [bottom of the ninth, Game 7, a blooper over Jeter’s head] because the infield was in,” David said.
“Seinfeld” went on the air in the summer of 1989. The Yankees were out of the postseason that year, and they didn’t make it back to the postseason until 1995, as a Wild Card team under Buck Showalter, even though David and everybody else thought they were on their way back to the World Series the year before, until a labor dispute caused the cancellation of the season in the middle of August.
But by the time “Seinfeld” went off the air in the spring of 1998, the Yankees had won a World Series under Joe Torre and lost that series to the Indians in five games in ’97. By the spring of ’98, the Yankees were beginning what was arguably (not much of an argument, either) the greatest season in their history: 114 regular-season victories, 125 in all, a four-game sweep of the Padres in the Series. Finally, David’s team was back on top.
We had a lot of back-and-forth about the Yankees on Sunday. Near the end, I realized that he still hadn’t given me his five favorite Yankees.
“How can I leave out all the others?” he said. But then he said, “Mantle, Mattingly, Munson, Matsui. And even though it’s a tough call, Rickey Henderson, who we only had for four years.”
I asked him if Henderson made the list because he was the best leadoff man the Yankees ever had.
“Absolutely,” Larry David said. “Plus all those RBI chances for No. 23.”
He meant Mr. Mattingly. Still right there with The Mick at the top of his list. The famous Yankee fan who’s seen all those World Series since that first trip to the Stadium in ’54 is still loyal to the greatest Yankee never to play in one.
“Loved No. 23,” he said.
Still got issues with Mo, however.