If Sandy Koufax is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, why not Don Mattingly? OK, OK, maybe that’s like comparing apples to oranges. How about Kirby Puckett vs. Don Mattingly? Take a look at this and more in “Donnie Baseball” by longtime journalist Mike Shalin.
1. Nobody worked harder than Mattingly.
Over and over again, Mattingly laced balls to left field or left-center field. That swing became part of his DNA. It was forged in his childhood to avoid the big tree in right. By the time he finished his playing career, that swing and literally back-breaking work made him among the best of his era.
Butch Wynegar recalls his teammate in the prime of his career. Mattingly’s average hovered around .350. The question was, how could he get it to .360? If he could only tweak his swing a hair… 4-4 AB wasn’t good enough. Why not 5-5 AB, and what was wrong with that one at-bat when he went 4-5 AB? Mattingly never relented. It didn’t matter where he was or who was his manager. The only thing he worried about was what he needed to do to be successful each day.
Toward the end of his career, Mattingly spent hours on conditioning merely so he could walk. Then and only then came baseball drills. “Buck, I cannot stand in the batter’s box and think I have not outworked and out-prepared the guy I am facing,” Mattingly told his former manager, Buck Showalter. (66, Donnie)
2. “Donnie Baseball” was the captain in every sense.
“The first thing I noticed about him was that he was only concerned about getting attention for the way he played, and not from any kind of theatrics. When he talks, he’s saying something. There’s nothing empty about him at all,” Joe Torre said. (vii, ix)
After the Yankees blew a 2-0 series lead in the 1995 ALDS against Seattle, one would expect Mattingly to be inconsolable. It was the only postseason series of his career, and he did his part, batting .417. But instead of sulking, Mattingly went around reassuring his teammates that all was not lost. Imagine, the one who the Bombers were playing for during that historic run telling teammates not to mourn for him. That was “Donnie Baseball.”
When the Yankees were stocked at first base in 1982, they asked Mattingly to switch to outfield. He decided to make the most of the experiment and ultimately outlasted the other corner men. People said Mattingly was quiet. Showalter said they had no idea what they were talking about. Mattingly simply picked his spots, on the plane, in the locker room, out of public view.
The Core Four recalls Mattingly’s impact as well. In 1995, Derek Jeter and Mattingly crossed paths as the young shortstop walked off the field. Mattingly encouraged Jeter to always go at full speed, and the lesson stuck. Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera remember him as an approachable superstar who would look out for the young guys.
3. For six years Mattingly stood as arguably the best first baseman in the league.
Koufax went 129-47 from 1961-66 before he had to retire due to elbow problems. From 1984 to 1989, Mattingly averaged 27 HR, 114 RBI and hit at a .327 clip. He also captured the 1984 batting title and ’85 MVP honors, narrowly missing a repeat in ’86.
Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett (two fewer games played, .318 AVG, 2,304 hits, 207 HR, 1,085 RBI, six Gold Gloves) logged similar numbers to Mattingly (.307 AVG, 2,153 hits, 222 HR, 1,099 RBI and nine Gold Gloves.) Why is “Puck” in the Hall and not “Donnie Baseball?” (Puckett received 82.1 percent support in his first year of eligibility. Mattingly got 28.2 percent.)
The difference is likely in the numbers where there is no comparison. Puckett led the Twins to a pair of world championships in five years. He earned an All-Star selection 10 straight times. Mattingly has but one shortcoming, it seems – only one postseason appearance.
Don’t worry, Mattingly secured his place. He ranks among the Yankees’ best ever in doubles (442), hits (2,153), batting average (.307), runs (1,007) and home runs (222). More than enough to put him in Monument Park.
Sam Miller is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. During the 2009 season, Miller served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.