In the next week or so, the Hall of Fame Class of 2009 will be announced, and, in all likelihood, Don Mattingly will be passed over for the ninth consecutive year. And while his Hall of Fame-credentials may be debatable, his is definitely a career worth remembering and celebrating.
Even for those of us who are not exactly Yankees fans, it’s hard to deny that Donnie Baseball played the game in an admirable way and at an exceptional level for over a decade. He was always one of the most respected guys in the league, and it only took a few short years before he was in the “best player in baseball” conversation. Whether this was a product of 1980s baseball (and its dearth of dominant superstars), or of the New York media market, or if it was truly a result of his talent and personality, it doesn’t exactly matter because Mattingly was a legitimate superstar and quite worthy of the praise.
Because of this, and because we seem to forget it somewhat fifteen years later, I think it’s worth looking at his career as it was seen by contemporary writers. As is the case with other “Through the Years” posts, I’ll be looking through my collection of annual baseball preview magazines to see how Mattingly was seen on a year-to-year basis and to see how quickly his stature rose.
We’ll begin with the 1983 Street & Smith’s preview guide, in the minor league prospects section:
“Outfielder-first sacker Don Mattingly has big-league hitter written all over him. A Double-A all-star in 1981, when he batted .314, he didn’t skip a beat in AAA, where he hit .315 with 75 ribbies. Mattingly, a line-drive hitter who always makes contact, can only be questioned for a lack of power.”
Though he started the season with the big club, Mattingly didn’t get called up for good until late-June 1983, quickly replacing the injured Steve Kemp at first. By the end of the season, he had put up a respectable .283/.333/.409 line, and had seemingly won the starting spot for good.
While his rookie season was solid, it didn’t provide a great glimpse of things to come. The following year’s Street & Smith’s mentioned him only briefly, though that would be the last time that would happen. Mattingly’s sophomore season was terrific, hitting .343/.381/.537 with 207 hits and 110 RBIs and only 33 strikeouts. And though his OBP was only 38 points better than his average, he still had a 156 OPS+. He finished fifth in the MVP voting that year.
The season was impressive enough that he was quickly embraced by the city of New York, and, when the Yankees signed Rickey Henderson that off-season, it created a line-up that people just couldn’t wait to see. From the 1985 Street & Smith’s:
“Just think of the RBI situations [Rickey will] create for Don Mattingly (.343, 23 HR, 110 RBI) … Mattingly’s batting title was the first for a Yankee since Mickey Mantle’s .353 in 1956. His 207 hits were the most since Bobby Richardson’s 200 in ’62.”
The excitement and predictions were well-placed. The 1985 season was one of his best, and it led to his only MVP award. He batted .324/.371/.567 with 211 hits, 107 runs scored, 35 home runs, 145 RBIs, and a 156 OPS+. The significance of Rickey’s arrival and what it did for his MVP award was not lost on Mattingly:
“Mattingly credits the presence of Henderson and Winfield as major factors in his success. ‘When you have Henderson hitting in front of you and Winfield behind you,’ Mattingly said, ‘it means someone’s always on base and pitchers can’t pitch around you. I put up some great numbers last year but I couldn’t have done it without them.'”
Manager Lou Piniella was very impressed with Mattingly after his MVP season:
“‘He’s one of those special players who come along once in a long while,’ said Piniella. ‘By the time he’s finished, he’ll be recognized as one of the all-time greats.'”
Mattingly put up another superb season in 1986 to rival his ’85 campaign. With a .352/.294/.573 line and 117 runs scored, 238 hits, 31 home runs, 113 RBIs, and a 161 OPS+, he finished second in the MVP voting behind Boston’s Roger Clemens.
The 1987 Street & Smith’s put his season in perspective:
“Mattingly became only the tenth player in history and the first in 27 years to finish with at least 200 hits, a .350 average, 30 home runs, and 100 runs batted in. His final numbers were .352 with 31 homers and 113 RBIs. His 238 hits smashed Earl Combs’s team record of 231 and his 53 doubles took out Lou Gehrig’s 52. The left-hander even played third base in an emergency.”
The season also impressed the Sporting News, saying that he “further enhanced his image as a throwback to another era”, and the Petersen’s baseball preview called him “baseball’s best player.” He did come back to earth a little during that 1987 season, but he still ended with a .327/.378/.559 line and a 146 OPS+. His season was not forgettable, however, as he set a record that season for most grand slams in a season with 6 and also tied a record for hitting home runs in 8 consecutive games. Needless to say, Mattingly had made more than an impression on the league. From the 1988 Athlon preview guide:
“Don Mattingly has played only four full years in the major leagues.When the 1988 season opens, he’ll be only 26 years old. And he is the best player in baseball.
That label is not given casually. It comes from the most discerning critics available: Mattingly’s fellow players. The first baseman of the New York Yankees was selected as the best of the best in a poll of players by the New York Times in 1986. Players again were asked their choice in 1987, this time by USA Today. They hadn’t changed their minds.”
For the first time since his rookie year, Mattingly’s 1988 campaign failed to earn him MVP consideration. He did make his fifth consecutive All-Star team and win his fourth consecutive Gold Glove, however. It was also the second straight year that he missed some time due to injuries, playing in only 144 games that year. His 1989 season was better, as he returned to full health, playing in 158 games and hitting .303/.351/.477 with a 133 OPS+.
By this time, Mattingly had played in six full seasons and had established himself as a genuine person and ballplayer. In compiling their “Dream Team” roster of the best players at each position over the previous 50 years (from 1941 to 1990), the 1990 Street & Smith’s did not fail to recognize this:
“First Base: Don Mattingly and Willie McCovey
One of the only two players on the “Street & Smith’s Dream Team,” Mattingly won a spot after less than seven full seasons with the Yankees. He has earned the respect of teammates and opponents, of players past and present, and of fans and the media with a renowned work ethic and outstanding ability. A Triple Crown threat, Mattingly has batted over .300 in each of the last six years while averaging more than 26 homers and 114 RBIs and striking out just 202 times. Defensively, he has few peers…”
That season – 1990 – marked the first significant injury to Mattingly, with him appearing in only 102 games that year, and it marked the beginning of the end of his career. If Mattingly had continued to play anywhere near the level that he showed between 1984 and 1989 for 5 to 7 more years, I don’t think there’s any doubt that he’d already be enshrined in Cooperstown.
Instead, a bad back took away an excellent hitter, defender, and person and will likely keep him out of the Hall forever. It’s a shame because, even though there are many of us who dislike the Yankees and think that their history gets a little over-played by the national media, it’s still nice to see genuine people with genuine talents get the recognition that they deserve. Don Mattingly was one of these people, and I hope people take the time to remember players like him every now and then (and Hall of Fame-time isn’t a bad time to do it).