The wind was blowing out when Danny Tartabull arrived at the park in Kansas City that evening. The sun was still draining from the sky like a thick amber fluid, so the lights had not been turned on yet. He would see to that himself, Tartabull thought. He would turn the bright lights on, and then he would never let them go out again.
Tartabull had sent a limousine for his girlfriend. Kellie Van Kirk, along with a dozen roses and a note instructing her precisely what dress he wanted her to wear that night. When the limo pulled into Wyandotte County Park, a ranger motioned it through a barricade, then sealed off traffic, and started removing any stray joggers still on the grounds. "I didn't want anybody pecking," Tartabull says.
When she arrived, he was waiting for her in a rented tuxedo—the rental is a detail that still troubles Tartabull three years later—with a four-course dinner and champagne. A harpist played softly as the couple ate. When they finished, Tartabull suggested that they walk up a nearby hill.
As they strolled along the crest of the hill, fireworks began to erupt in the distance, a cascade of sparks forming the question in letters 25 feet high: KELLIE, WILL YOU MARRY ME? Tartabull watched her reaction as if he were standing at the plate admiring a home run sailing out of the park. "I wanted to give her a never-ending memory," Tartabull says. "I enjoy watching other people treasure the moments I create."
Tartabull often tried to turn the bright lights on himself in his six years in Kansas City and Seattle, but he remained resolutely in the shadows until he signed a $25.5 million, five-year contract with the New York Yankees in January. A lifetime .287 hitter with 152 home runs, Tartabull was even overshadowed in free agency by his new crosstown rival, Bobby Bonilla, who signed with the New York Mets for $29 million. But it may be Tartabull whose light shines brightest in New York, where he is expected to have an immediate impact on the dreary Yankees, losers of 91 games last season and 95 the year before. "I think the contract sheds light on who Danny Tartabull is," Tartabull says. "The world will soon know who I am.
"I am different," he says, "very much different. But on the baseball field I'm the same as any other great player." Tartabull, 29, led the Royals at the plate last season, hitting .316 with 100 RBIs and 31 home runs. His numbers were almost identical to Bonilla's (.302. 100 RBIs), except when it came to going deep: Tartabull hit 13 more home runs than Bonilla did. Could Tartabull have been just a little too different for his own good? Just three years earlier, in '88, The New York Times had quoted "people who have served with Tartabull in Kansas City" as saying that he had "a bad attitude about playing, won't take instruction, only wants to hit home runs, is selfish and not a team player, and plays lackadaisically in the out-Held." The attribution was sufficiently vague to have included all the Royals, half the sommeliers and most of the harpists in town.
"I've always felt that I am a great player," Tartabull says. "Always. But people have never heard me say I'm a great player." He is warming to the subject now. "Behind closed doors, I'll tell you in a minute," he says. "I am great. I know that in certain situations I can do things a lot of other guys can't. I tune it up a little bit. But you'll never, ever hear me say publicly that I am great." For a moment, Tartabull looks stricken, evidently realizing he may have gone one rhetorical flourish too far. "But let's say I do tell everyone that I'm great," he goes on, recovering now. "What does that have to do with having a bad attitude?"
The sniping about Tartabull's attitude seemed to commence when the Seattle Mariners inexplicably traded him to the Royals following a rookie season, in 1986, in which he hit 25 homers and knocked in 96 runs. Of the three players the Mariners received in return—Mike Kingery, Scott Bankhead and Steve Shields—only Bank-head had a bright future in the majors. "I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on," Tartabull says, still incredulous at the disrespect implicit in such a lopsided trade.
From the moment he arrived in Kansas City, he felt slighted by the Royals, starting with the introductory press conference that the team conducted on his behalf, which he found unworthy. If Tartabull knew what a great player he was, why couldn't the rest of them see? He would show them.
After hitting his 23rd home run that year, he announced to reporters that he had just tied Al Cowens's homer record for Royals rightfielders. "Nobody knew that," one reporter said later. "And frankly, nobody cared." He hit .309 with 34 homers and 101 RBIs in his first season with the Royals. "I have always risen to revenge," Tartabull said.