Growing up a Yankees fan in New York, Don Mattingly was my favorite baseball player. I had never witnessed a more perfect swing; one that I tried to emulate during my Little League and high school days.
Mattingly had a distinguished MLB career; .361 wOBA with a WAR of 40.7.
He was downright dominant for a couple of seasons. From 1984 to 1987, he didn’t have a season with less than a 5.3 WAR; his wRC+ during that stretch was 153, 151, 160, and 142 respectively (97 was the league average).
Mattingly struck out in just 5.8% of his at bats for his career; league average in his era was about 15%.
Not only was he a tremendous hitter, he was a wizard at first base. Mattingly’s career fielding percentage at first is a remarkable .996; he made just 64 errors in 14 seasons with the Yankees.
Enter: Donny Baseball
1982 was Mattingly’s first season with the Yankees and the team had just come off a defeat in the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
He’d have to wait 13 years for the Yanks to get back to the post-season.
Mattingly played on some decent teams (1983-1986) and he played on some dreadful teams (1989-1991). Several seasons had the Yankees just out of reach of an American League East title. The best team that Mattingly played on, the 1985 squad, came within two games of the Toronto Blue Jays. The Jays would go on to lose the AL Championship to the eventual ’85 World Series Champion Kansas City Royals.
Mattingly’s best shot at a championship came in the strike-shortened year of 1994. The Yankees were 70-43 and were well on their way to representing the American League in the World Series. They never got that shot.
Beginning in 1987, back injuries plagued Mattingly on and off during the rest of his career. The rumor was it happened during some horseplay in the Yankees clubhouse but never substantiated. He was able to cope with it for a few years, but it eventually flared back up in 1990 and seemed to get worse as time went on.
In 1995, the scrappy Yankees squad won the AL Wild Card on the next to last day of the season. They fought hard against the Seattle Mariners, but would go on to lose a heartbreaking game five in the bottom of the 11th.
Mattingly had played his last game.
The sad thing is, given his back issues, we will never know how truly great Mattingly could have been.
Mattingly found work in baseball after his retirement. He would serve as hitting coach, then bench coach for the Yankees from 2004-2007. He was able to return to the postseason, although as a spectator this time. The Yankees lost the ALCS in 2004, followed by early exits in the division series from 2005-2007.
Mattingly moved on to manage the Los Angeles Dodgers (2011-2015) and is currently the skipper for the Miami Marlins. His career record as a manager is a respectable 602-530, with eight wins and 11 losses in the postseason.
The baseball Gods giveith, then takeith away
If you can present me with an argument as to why Mattingly didn’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, I’d love to hear it because I’ve yet to be told.
He was the 1985 League MVP, a 6-time All Star, and won the gold glove at first base nine out of his 14 seasons. Mattingly was voted a silver slugger at first three years straight (1985-1987) and won the batting title in 1984.
In 1987 Mattingly hit six grand slams, breaking the record of five held by Ernie Banks (1955) and Jim Gentile (1961). The record stood alone for nearly 20 years until Travis Hafner tied it in 2006.
One of the criteria for electing a player into the Hall of Fame is their skill in relation to other players at their position, typically during the peak of the player’s career.
Here’s a quick glance at all first baseman from 1984 to 1987:
And, top ten first baseman for the duration of Mattingly’s career:
For three seasons, Mattingly was the best player in terms of WAR. He led all first basemen in that era with a .337 batting average, tied for most home runs (119), second in wRC+, and was second to Bill Buckner in strikeout rate (5.3 and 5.2, respectively).
The Last Lost Piece of the Puzzle
Righteousness would have been for Mattingly to make it into the Hall of Fame. In his first year of eligibility, he only garnered 28% of the vote. He would be on the ballot from 2001-2015, every year getting fewer votes.
Mattingly has a great legacy as a New York Yankee. He is adored by fans and has a plaque in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park. His number 23 was retired in 1997.
Arguably the best first baseman (let alone hitter) during his peak years, Mattingly deserved so much better.
I learned long ago that life isn’t fair. Some things are harder to take than others. Mattingly belongs in the Hall of Fame. End of story.