It is hard to explain to people who did not live in the 1980’s to understand what Don Mattingly meant to Yankee fans of my age. He was more than statistics. He was more than career totals. He represented a hope that did not come. And he was one of the least lucky players ever to play the game.
To understand the significance of Mattingly, you need to understand when he played. The Indiana native was a 19th round draft pick for the Yankees in 1979. He was not exactly a coveted property. But he made it to the Bronx in 1982. The Yankees were the defending AL Champs in 1982, but in name only. The post Reggie turmoil had started in Yankee Stadium.
Three managers helmed the Yankees in 1982, Bob Lemon, Gene Michael and Clyde King. Then in 1983, Billy Martin returned from Oakland. Then in 1984 it was Yogi Berra. In 1985, it was Berra and Billy Martin. In 1986 it was Lou Piniella. There was no stability on the team. General Managers were dumped just as quickly.
Stars like Graig Nettles and Goose Gossage followed Reggie out of town. New stars like Don Baylor and Rickey Henderson showed up. There was no stability with the Yankees.
And yet somehow in the middle of the turmoil stood Don Mattingly, who emerged as a star in 1984 as a star by all the metrics that were used then. He hit for a high average, leading the league in 1984 during a season long race with his teammate Dave Winfield. He piled up hits, RBI and was a 30 home run hitter.
He played with quiet professionalism and, because he played at the same time that another Indiana favorite son was at the top of his game, was compared to Larry Bird. He won the AL MVP in 1985 as he batted .324 and led the league in RBI. He was even better in 1986, posting this highest OPS in the league with .967 (not that anyone knew that then.)
He kept posting All Star numbers and picking up Gold Gloves throughout the rest of the 1980’s. But Mattingly’s effect on the fans was not simply numerical. As his star rose in 1984, another unusual event happened in New York baseball: The Mets began to take over the city.
The Mets were suddenly cooler than the Yankees, and they were becoming more star studded. While Steinbrenner frantically tried to bring stars to the Bronx, two young players captured the imagination of the city. Dwight Gooden was the best pitcher in baseball during the same time that Mattingly was claiming his MVP. And Darryl Strawberry, while not the all around hitter that Mattingly was, played with a flair for the dramatic that began to sway the fair weather fans.
For Yankee fans who stayed true to their team, Mattingly represented hope and a link to the past. He was their homegrown star who was going to lead the Yankees back to the promised land, provided that Steinbrenner did not get in the way. (Back then George was considered a meddling figure.) And as Mattingly kept assembling his Hall of Fame resume, he would add a title and ultimately earn his place among the Yankee greats.
For fans who did not see Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, this was their chance to see a Yankee great from the start. And unlike Reggie, Goose, Winfield and other Yankee stars, Mattingly was not poached from another organization. He was one of theirs. Let the band wagon jumpers go to Shea. Mattingly would make everything good again.
Was their a racial issue? Mattingly stoic and white in contrast to two brash black stars who would face addiction demons. Perhaps. But mainly Mattingly represented the next great chapter in Yankee history. And for fans in the 1980’s, he was THEIR legend.
But man Mattingly had bad timing with his career. As Steinbrenner meddled and kept shifting the managers (between 1982 and 1990, the Yankees would make 10 manager changes) he also traded away young players for established veterans. The result was seeing Willie McGee, Jose Rijo, Doug Drabek, Fred McGriff and Greg Gagne among others succeed elsewhere in exchange for recognizable players on their last legs.
Despite playing in a winnable AL East, the Yankees could not win their division. The great Yankee juggernaut did not see October between 1982 and 1993. By the 1990’s, the Yankees became one of the worst teams in baseball and Mattingly became hampered by injury.
In 1994, the Yankees looked poised to win the AL East and possibly the pennant. But the players strike wiped out the post season. In 1995, the Yankees had a losing record in August but stormed into the post season. For the first time, Mattingly was going to play in October. He homered in Game 2, causing a thunderous sound in the Bronx as their hero was finally getting his chance. Seattle would win the dramatic series in a heart breaking (for Yankee fans) extra inning loss.
in 1996, the Yankees and Mattingly parted ways. He could not play every day anymore and the team traded for Tino Martinez, who was instantly vilified for not being Don Mattingly.
The man known as Donnie Baseball retired. He arrived a year too late to play in the 1981 World Series. The year after he retired, the Yankees won the World Series, meaning his career perfectly stood between two pennants.
As Mattingly finished his career without a World Series appearance, the team went on to win 4 of the next 5 titles and 6 of the next 8 pennants. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera became the home grown stars to lead them (along with Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte).
Remember the adulation and love that Jeter got from Yankee fans? For fans my age, they were waiting to shower that onto Mattingly. It never happened for him. His timing was too bad.