I’ve been a Yankee fan for over forty years. In that time, I’ve owned 1 (ONE) Yankee jersey. It has number 23 on it. I just wanted to lead with that disclosure so you have some context while you read.
Donald Arthur Mattingly has been on the minds and mouths of Yankee fans a lot recently. His name has been mentioned as a possible successor to Joe Girardi, as well as being a nominee on the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Modern Era ballot. The Modern Era ballot is part of what used to be the Veteran’s Committee which was somewhat of a sham on numerous levels. (For more on this, check out Jay Jaffe’s book on the Hall – The Cooperstown Casebook. It’s unbelievably well researched and is a fun read at the same time, which is a hard pairing to pull off. Plenty of stuff in there of which I wasn’t previously aware. The link is on the right side of this page.)
Discussing Donnie from a fan’s perspective is very easy. He’s as universally respected and admired as any Yankee ever – frankly, in my lifetime, I would say he and Mariano Rivera are the only Yankees who every Yankee fan regards in exactly the same manner. I’ve spoken to many people over the past few weeks, online and off, and there hasn’t been one differing opinion on Donnie Baseball – we all seem to have the same recollections and the same feelings on both the guy and the player:
Unbelievably classy, professional guy. As a player quite often he was the one adult in a circus environment that broke many men. Even as a coach, he handled being passed over for the vacant manager’s position in 2008 with class and professionalism when almost everybody assumed he’d get the job.
And as a player, damn was he fun to watch. The best defensive 1st basemen I’ve ever seen, and yes, I saw a lot of Keith Hernandez. I’m not sure how much modern defensive rating systems factor saving bad throws into their grades, but I think I remember Mattingly catching 3 or 4 balls his entire career that were in the neighborhood of his chest. With most of the teams he played on with most of the infielders who were throwing to him (where have you gone, Bobby Meacham?), Mattingly looked more like an NHL goalie with the best glove hand ever than a MLB first baseman.
If you’ve read my stuff before, you know I don’t buy into the silliness that is the term “clutch”. But Donnie did have a flair for the dramatic…
An MLB record with at least one HR in 8 straight games, made for an interesting stretch in what was an otherwise status quo summer in ’87.
Hell, I remember the final day of the 1986 season, when playing against Boston, Donnie needed 5 hits to catch Wade Boggs for the batting title (Boggs didn’t play that day, so he wasn’t going to help). Donnie led off the game with a Home Run off of Jeff Sellers to left center field, over the green monster. I think all Yankee fans thought what my father and I said out loud as we watched: “Wow – he might do it…”. By the 4th inning, Donnie had two hits and had our hearts going, but he ultimately fell a little short of a 2nd batting title.
And none of us will ever forget that a) The Yankees only gave Donnie one shot at the post season, and b) Damn, did he make it count. In a season that was clearly going to be his last, as his litany of back issues robbed him of his power at the plate and his mobility at first base, all Donnie did was put on an epic performance in the epic 1995 ALDS. In 5 games, all Donnie did was get on base 11 times, hit 4 doubles, a HR and drove in six. Over 25 plate appearances, he posted an OBP of .440 and a SLG of .708. It is literally one of the best post season performances by a Yankee and it’s largely forgotten due to his teammates’ inability to hold a lead.
I was fortunate enough to be at Yankee Stadium for Don Mattingly day in September 1996. Turns out, as luck would have it, Bernie Williams hit what turned out to be the game winner that afternoon and I got to meet Bernie after the game, who signed the ticket stub which I still have to this day. (It’s good to know people – in this case, my cousin, who played with Bernie prior to Bernie’s stardom. I digress…) I vividly recall Donnie’s humility that day: It didn’t go down as the luckiest man speech, but he did say “I don’t know what I did to deserve all this” (motioning to the gifts, fans and number 23 painted on the field). The guy behind me yelled “You played your ass off Donnie!”, speaking for all 50 something thousand in attendance. It’s funny to think about players behaving like that now, when we get bat flips and poses for flare opposite field singles…
And ironically, one of my favorite parts of Moneyball has to do with Donnie and the manner in which he was regarded by a younger player. (If you haven’t read Moneyball, read it. Don’t tell me you watched the movie. Link is on the right side of this page.) Scott Hatteburg telling the story of his first major league hit and what happened when he got to first base with Mattingly there still has me cracking up.
As I said, I don’t think I’ll get any hate mail on my assessment with Donnie. I’ve never heard anyone say anything different than the above: He was an easy to guy for whom to root, he hit the living hell out of the ball, he made playing 1st base fun to watch. On top of that he played with class, he played injured for most of his career and came up huge when the Yanks needed him to come up huge.
But where many of us may disagree is about Donnie as a manager, and whether or not Donnie is a Hall of Famer. I’ll get back to you on those things soon.