When I volunteered to write the Countdown to Spring Training number 23 post I entertained the idea of writing about a different number 23. The fact that Lou Gehrig and Alex Rodriguez share the all time grand slam leadership with 23 a piece came to mind. But what’s the point? In Yankee land there’s only one thing 23 means: Don Mattingly.
Ironically, of all the writers for this blog I’m probably the least qualified to write a post on Donnie Baseball. I wasn’t a Mattingly fan as a kid. As a boy I was a bigger fan of the history of baseball than I was of the actual game being played at the time. I spent far more time watching videos with footage of the all time greats (Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, etc) playing the game than I did any actual live games.
That changed in 1989. My Dad took me to the Stadium to see the Yankees play Oakland on my eighth birthday. We got there early to watch batting practice, and maybe get an autograph. When we arrived Mattingly was working his way along the field side of the Yankee dugout, signing autographs. We rushed over to join the line, but we had poor real estate. We camped out just beyond where the dugout ended. It was clear that Donnie Baseball was going to stop signing autographs before he got to us. When he did, I became very upset, like any eight year old would be.
For some reason, just as it was dawning on me that Mattingly wasn’t going to give me an autograph, Rickey Henderson (who was still a Yankee at the time; he would be traded to Oakland a month or two later) was taking grounders at first base. My Dad yelled to him, “Rickey, make my son a Yankee fan!” Henderson raised his hand, and pointed in the air with his index finger, as if to say “one second please”. He stopped taking his reps, came over, and signed my baseball. Three things happened that day. First, I stopped being a fan of the history of baseball and immediately became obsessed with the New York Yankees. Second, I became a Rickey Henderson fan. Finally, I got a souvenir that I’ll keep for the rest of my life.
Apart from the role he played in getting me that autograph, this story also relates to Mattingly in terms of when it takes place. That I began following the Yankees as a team year-in, year-out, in 1989 meant that I missed Mattingly’s glory years.
By 1989 Mattingly had already suffered the back injury that forced him to change his swing in a way that robbed him of his home run power. Before that injury Donnie Baseball was an offensive juggernaut, perhaps the best all around hitter in the game. Every year from 1984 to 1987 Mattingly had a wOBA of at least 140. He was a perennial threat to hit .330 with 30 plus homers. He won the batting title in 1984, when he hit .343. He won the MVP the following season, when his slash line was .324/.371/.567. He was even better in 1986 when he posted .352/.394/.573. During a time in baseball when sluggers routinely hit .250 and struck out a couple hundred times, Donnie Baseball was a throw back to Stan Musial, or even Lou Gehrig. No one was better.
Mattingly was also the only reason many Yankee fans got up in the morning. As odd as it sounds in light of today’s team, the Yankees weren’t a power house in the AL in the 1980s. Mattingly’s best years came at a time when George Steinbrenner was banned from baseball, the Yankees were experiencing a multi-year playoff drought, and the Mets, of all teams, owned New York City. At that time many Yankee fans tuned into the games specifically to watch Don Mattingly, because there wasn’t much else going on for the team. For a time Mattingly delivered.
The back issues are an apt metaphor for the bad luck and unfulfilled potential of Don’s entire tenure with the Yankees. Fate never did right by him. He could have been one of the all time greats, but he got injured. He remained a better than average offensive player into the early 1990s, but he decided to hang ’em up after the 1995 season, when he finally played in October. The next year the Yankees won the World Series, with Tino Martinez at first base. Years later the Yankees would choose Joe Girardi over Mattingly to be the team’s manager.
As bittersweet as all that may be, no one can change the fact that Don Mattingly is the face of the Yankees from the 1980s. That may not have been a great time for the team, but for a while it was a great time Donnie Baseball.