Monday, January 25, 2010

23 Days Until Spring Training: Don Mattingly

As Yankee fans, we're fortunate that the biggest names in franchise history - Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, Mantle - rank amongst the inner circle greatest players in the history of the game. But there is another breed of Yankee hero, the players that didn't quite have the long term dominance of their immortalized counterparts, but who nonetheless had impressive peaks and lengthy careers, and as a result, will forever hold a special place in the hearts of Yankee fans.

Bobby Murcer came to the Bronx heralded as the next Mickey Mantle. He arrived the year after the Mantle/Ford/Berra dynasty won its final pennant and was traded away two seasons before the Yankees returned to the Fall Classic. In between, he had a five year stretch where he was consistently amongst the best players in the game, and returned to the Yankees the year after they repeated as champions. His teammate Thurman Munson emerged as one the premier catchers in the game in the early seventies, won the AL MVP in 1976, and captained the Yankees to three consecutive pennants and back-to-back World Series titles. While neither was great long enough to warrant enshrinement in Cooperstown, they were great enough to be fondly remembered by Yankee fans for generations to come.

But perhaps chief amongst these lesser Yankee greats is Don Mattingly, who interestingly enough left the minor leagues for good in 1983, when Murcer retired and Mattingly was recalled to take his roster spot. Mattingly quickly established himself as a regular in the Yankee line up. After an impressive rookie campaign he came back in 1984 to lead the Majors in OPS+, win the AL batting title over teammate Dave Winfield, and lead the league in hits and in doubles for the first of three consecutive seasons.

That 1984 season would serve as springboard for Mattingly, the first of a six season stretch that saw Mattingly perpetually as one of the premier players in the game. He won the AL MVP in 1985, leading the league in RBI and total bases, and winning both the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove for the first of three consecutive seasons. He followed that in 1986 with perhaps his greatest single season, leading the Majors in hits, doubles, extra base hits, total bases, slugging, and OPS. He led the Majors OPS+ for the second time in three seasons, set franchise records with 238 hits and 53 doubles, and finished second to Roger Clemens in AL MVP voting. The left-hander even made three appearances, including two starts, at third base while Mike Pagliarulo was injured.

In 1987, Mattingly missed 21 games due to injury but still managed to post a .327/.378/.559 batting line with 30 HR. He also tied a Major League record by homering in eight consecutive games from July 8th through July 18th, and set a Major League record with six grand slams on the season. The following two years saw Mattingly slip a bit from the lofty standards he'd set over the previous years, but he still remained amongst the game's better players.

The bottom fell out for Mattingly in 1990. Long lingering back problems knocked him out of the line up for nearly two months, and he was largely ineffectual when playing, hitting just .256/.308/.335. Though just 29, Mattingly was virtually finished. He posted decent numbers for the remaining five years of his career, but they were a far cry from his glory days and not what one would want to see from a corner infielder on a contending team.

In the final season of his career, Mattingly reached the post-season at long last. Though the Yankees lost the five game series in heartbreaking fashion, Mattingly turned in a very impressive .417/.440/.708 batting line, including a memorable game tying home run in Game Two at Yankee Stadium.

Mattingly elected to sit out the 1996 season, despite interest from the Yankees and other clubs. While he initially planned to return in 1997, he didn't find any offers to his liking and decided that he didn't want to go through the rigors of another year in the Majors. He announced his retirement that January and his number was retired later that year. He also began serving as a Spring Training instructor that February and in the years that followed, eventually leading to role as hitting coach beginning in 2004. He was promoted to bench coach in 2007, presumably as the heir apparent to Joe Torre. But when Torre was fired following the season and Mattingly was passed over in favor of Joe Girardi for the manager's job, Donnie followed Torre to L.A. Torre has said he doesn't plan on managing beyond 2011, and Mattingly is considered to be the manager-in-waiting for the Dodgers.

Even after two years in Dodger blue it's still odd to see Mattingly in anything other than Yankee Pinstripes. Perhaps Donny Baseball will return to the Yankees as a manager someday. Part of me was relieved that Mattingly didn't get the job two years ago. He's one of the most beloved Yankees of all time; he had very little to gain and almost everything to lose by taking his first managerial job with a club that's expected to win the World Series each year. Whether or not Mattingly ever returns to the Bronx though, he'll always remain a Yankee.