When Don Mattingly played third base

Have you ever seen a left-handed throwing third baseman in the Major Leagues? I have not. And generations have not. Apparently in the early 1900s, Wee Willie Keeler, normally a left-handed throwing outfielder, played 44 games at third base, 19 games at second base and even played two games at shortstop. According to the Sabr Bio Project, nobody did it again until Don Mattingly played three games at third in 1986. The first thought that came to my mind was the four players (Tovar, Campinaris, Sheldon and Halter) that played all nine positions in a game.  But, nope, they were all right-handed throwers. The Sabr Bio Project mentioned earlier talks about Mattingly's feat in passing as part of his larger biography. Here is the rest of the story.

The Yankees' regular third baseman in 1986 was Mike Pagliarulo. "Pags" was a bit of a cult hero in New York because he had some home run pop in his bat and was kind of a blue-color kind of player. He was a good fielder but besides the homers, wasn't much of a hitter. Anyway, the Yankees were in the midst of one of those west coast road trips and were slated to start a series at the Kingdome against the Seattle Mariners on Thursday, August 28.  It was going to be a long weekend with a double-header on Saturday making for a five-game series. Things became more complicated when Pagliarulo hurt himself and was not ready to go on August 29. He wasn't hurt enough to go on the disabled list, but with five games to play in four days, being a man down was not the best situation.

It didn't help any that Yankee infield options at the time included Wayne Tolleson and Mike Fischlin. Tolleson was slightly more tolerable at the plate than Fischlin, but to have both in the lineup was not ideal. The Yankees were only six games out of first place and needed to win as many games as they could. Stories tell us that Don Mattingly volunteered to manager Lou Piniella that he would play third. I can kind of picture Lou Piniella's face at the suggestion. He might have started with deep hesitation but Mattingly ended up playing three games at third over the weekend.

The Sabr Bio Project mentions that Mattingly made an error on his first chance. But perhaps they were thinking of August 30 when Mattingly started at third. But he actually played third the day before from the fifth inning on. Here's how it happened:

Neither starter in the game (Ron Guidry and Mark Langston) had anything in this game and by the bottom of the second inning, the Mariners led 8-5. The Mariners added four more runs in the bottom of the fourth to go ahead, 12-5. The Yankees came roaring right back in the top of the fifth. Rickey Henderson started if off with a homer. Mattingly walked. Dave Winfield walked. Ron Kittle hit a double to score Mattingly. Dan Pasqua pinch hit for starting left-fielder, Gary Roenicke and singled in Winfield and Kittle. Tolleson, who started the game at third, reached on an error. Mike Easler pinch hit for Fischlin and reached on an error and two more runs scored.

Tolleson had to move to short to replace Fischlin. So in the bottom of the fifth, Don Mattingly made history and moved to third. Dan Pasqua took over first. And it wasn't long before Mattingly was put to the test. The Mariners' lead off batter singled but was thrown out trying to steal. A walk and a single later and the Mariners had first and second with one out. The next batter, Jim Presley, hit a grounder to Mattingly, who threw to second to start a 5-4-3 double-play. First chance. Double-play. How cool is that?

In the bottom of the sixth, Mattingly got two more ground balls and converted both of them. In the bottom of the eighth, he got two more ground balls and converted both of them.  In the bottom of the ninth, the first out of the inning was a grounder to Mattingly and he converted it. The Yankees won the game and Mattingly tallied six assists in six attempts in just five innings.

Lost in this story is Dan Pasqua. Pasqua also played out of position going to first base. And his homer tied the game and he scored the winning run.

The next day was the double-header and the first game is the one that was mentioned in that Mattingly bio because he started the game at third. The game was a pitching duel as the Mariners' Billy Swift out-dueled Tommy John and the Mariners won, 1-0. And indeed, in the very first inning, Don Mattingly made an error on his first chance on the very first Mariners' batter. John, being a ground ball pitcher, gave Mattingly an immediate second chance and once again, Mattingly turned a 5-4-3 double play.

Mattingly had another assist in the third inning. In the fifth inning, the Mariners would try to severely test the lefty third baseman, and came up empty. John hit the first batter and then gave up a single. The next batter got the sign to bunt to get the runners on second and third. Plus, with Mattingly playing third, perhaps they could get a big inning. But the batter did not bunt the ball far enough. Yankees' catcher, Joel Skinner scooped it up and threw to Mattingly for the force out. That effectively killed the rally.

In the bottom of the sixth, the Yankees made wholesale changes and Mattingly moved back to first base.

The Yankees won the second game, 3-0 despite only getting three hits. They had five hits the entire double-header. Mattingly started and played the entire game at first base. He also hit his 25th homer and drove in his 90th run. He was batting .334.

The next day was Sunday, August 31, 1986. The Mariners took the game, 6-2 behind Matt Moore's complete game. Don Mattingly started the game at third and played the entire game there. Once again, the first batter for the Mariners hit the ball to Mattingly but this time was thrown out. Mattingly had an assist in the second inning and again in the sixth inning.

In the bottom of the eight, the Mariners got their leadoff man on and Harold Reynolds was directed to bunt. He did and this time forced Mattingly to field the ball. Mattingly threw Reynolds out but the sacrifice was successful. Even so, it is somewhat amazing that a left-handed third baseman was able to field a bunt and throw a somewhat speedy runner out.

The next day was September 1 and the Yankees were able to expand their roster as they moved on to their next series in Oakland. This meant that a young Leo Hernandez was able to start the game at third and the fun times of seeing Don Mattingly at third were over. In a couple of days, Mike Pagliarulo was back and the events of August 29, 30 and 31 became the stuff of legend.

Mattingly's totals at third included twelve chances with one putout, ten assists accounting for twelve outs (two double-plays) and one error. Both Baseball-reference.com and Fangraphs.com gave him a score of one run above average for this three games total and he was credited with a UZR score of 1 with a UZR per 1200 chances of 60. Not bad for a lefty-throwing guy who had done something that hadn't been done since the days Wee Willie Keeler was playing Major League Baseball.

Incidently, Don Mattingly also played a game at second base. It was the infamous Pine Tar game that needed to be finished up after the commissioner ruled in favor of the Royals and reinstated George Brett's homer and forced the two teams to finish up the game again. Billy Martin made up his own protest, and when the game was finished on August 18, 1983, Martin put Mattingly at second and Ron Guidry in center field. Mattingly was credited with a third of an inning at second and did not get any chances.

I tried like the dickens to find a video of Mattingly playing third and could not even find a picture of the event. In 1986, I was living in New Hampshire and would not have been able to see the games. Perhaps some of you stayed up late that weekend to watch those games, and if so, saw some history and just another added chapter in the Donnie Baseball legend.