Over the past several years, I’ve had more than a few skeptical out-of-towners ask me why Don Mattingly is such a big deal in New York. On a superficial level, it’s like asking a Cubs fan why Ernie Banks, or Ryne Sandburg are popular in Chicago: they were all great players on losing teams. Okay, so Mattingly didn’t have a great career, but from 1984-1989 he was a great player. It doesn’t matter that he isn’t a Hall of Famer. Hey, most fans just love guys who hit for a high average and drive in runs without striking out much.
As Joe Posnanski wrote in an e-mail:
He wore the pinstripes, and played Gehrig’s position, and he was all throwback — he wore that black under his eye, and he had that great swing, he came to the park to beat you ever day. I think he’s one of those guys who, had he played in Boston, Cleveland, Texas, Philadelphia, Seattle, anywhere, would have still been everybody’s favorite ballplayer. There really was nothing phony about him. He went up there to hit. He stood off the plate, he walked shockingly little, he drove in bleeping runs. Guy hit .314 with runners in scoring position.
I always got the feeling from friends that Mattingly was the coveted, “One Yankees player you really wish was on your team.” Not because he was good, but because he was a player you liked despite yourself.
The second half of Mattingly’s career was marked by injuries. He also played through some awful years in the Bronx, which helped increase his popularity, but the legend of Donnie Baseball started in his first full year (1984) when he won the batting crown on the last day of the season, and the following year when he walked away with the AL MVP. It is also rooted in the fact that Mattingly was an overachiever–he was a heady player with limited physical gifts, a grinder, just the kind of player fans love, especially white fans.
“By the time his career is over,” said Ron Guidry in the spring of 1986, “he could be one of the best who ever played this game. He may not turn out to be quite what Lou Gehrig was, but he’ll be closer than anybody else.”
“His play, not his words, were the thing,” says BP’s Joe Sheehan. “He was a beacon of dignity in a time when the Yankees were largely undignified.”
Mattingly arrived on the scene as the Yankees were spiraling into George’s version of Groundhog’s Day. The Yankees annually discarded young players for big-name, big-ticket free agents. You remember the names–Kemp, Collins, Clark. Through it all, Mattingly was driven, confident and without pretense–“100% ballplayer, 0% bullsh**,” as Bill James later wrote.
Mattingly was the best young Yankee since Mickey Mantle, and like Mantle had the country-boy-in-the-big-city appeal. But he was no dope. He paid his dues on the infamous Columbus Shuttle. “It’s good that it didn’t all come so easy,” Mattingly once told Sports Illustrated. “One thing I can say about the Yankees: They’ve never given me a thing.”
After his MVP season, Steinbrenner haggled with Mattingly before avoiding arbitration and signing him to a one year, $1.375 million deal. Mattingly tweaked the owner at a Super Bowl banquet by showing up wearing sunglasses and a headband that read, “Steinbrenner.” (Mattingly was paying homage to Chicago Bears quarterback, Jim McMahon, who famously wore headbands with new slogans each week that season.)
Two years later, Mattingly said, “You come here and you play and you get no respect. They treat you like sh**. They belittle your performance and make you look bad in the media. After they give you the money, it doesn’t matter. They can do whatever they want. They think money is respect.”
It’s not hard to tell who Mattingly was talking about and his willingness to stand-up to Steinbrenner only increased his reputation with the fans. (When The Boss gave Mattingly grief about the length of his hair, Mattingly grew it longer.)
Best of all, Mattingly loved to work.
“I love to watch him practice,” Gene Mauch said when he was managing the Angels. “He’s very serious during infield, never wastes a swing in the cage. From there on I don’t want to look at him.”
Just yesterday, Mike Gallego recalled a favorite Mattingly story to Joel Sherman. It was 8 a.m. The Yankees had played a game the night before and had another game that afternoon. Mattingly was alone in the batting cage with about 200 balls littered around the cage:
“Donnie had no idea I was there,” said Gallego, now the Rockies’ third base coach. “I watched for 20 minutes. He was sweating bullets and all he was doing was tracking the ball. No swings. None. He’d watch all 200, put the balls back in a bucket, feed the machine and start again. He had been having trouble seeing the ball and there he was, the most famous player in the game, hours before the game, alone, retrieving his own balls, looking for an edge. I tell that story to our players now when they think they are working hard enough and they aren’t.”
Gallego loves the story, in part, because he admires Mattingly so much and thinks it depicts the man. Not just the diligent work ethic. But the humility. The discipline. The grinder makeup. And something else that, Gallego asserts, you could only know if you were observant around Mattingly.
“He is one of the quietest, fiercest competitors that I have ever played with or against,” Gallego said. “And he has great belief in himself. He thinks he will find a way to beat you. But he is not going to talk about it. He is not going to tell you how hard he is working or brag on his ability.”
In the summer of 1990, Mattingly was struggling and the Yankees had just about hit rock bottom. Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield were gone. Mattingly was the last Yankee, according to an article by Paul Solotaroff in The National Sports Daily (the piece can be found in Glenn Stout’s excellent collection, Top of the Heap):
“My place in Yankee history?” sniggers Donald Arthur Mattingly. “I’ll tell you what my place in Yankee history is. It’s hitting .260 on a struggling ballclub, and letting everyone down in here. At the moment, I don’t exactly feel too much a part of Ruth or Gehrig or DiMaggio.
…It’s pretty ugly, to tell you the truth. What they need to do is get rid of anyone who doesn’t care. I take it home every night, and some guys just leave it. That ticks me off, to see a guy laughing and joking around when we lose…You don’t want any of those kind of guys on your team.”
So, what kind of manager will Mattingly be? I asked a bunch of friends and colleagues yesterday and the response were decidedly mixed. I have no idea how he’ll do. I was not especially into the idea until a few days ago. I don’t know what turned me around exactly. Maybe I’m just being nostalgic for the Mattingly of my youth, the one who mattered so much to us. Who knows? Point is, I won’t be upset if he gets the nod. In fact, I’ll be eager to see how he does.
Hey, think he can get Zimmer to be his bench coach?