Two men stood tall in the baseball landscape in the mid 1980s. They were beloved franchise players who had unbelievably bad timing. Their names were Dale Murphy and Don Mattingly.
Dale Murphy turns 57 years old today. He may be a native of Portland Oregon, but he is beloved in Atlanta. For people my age who were raised on 1980’s baseball, Murphy WAS the Atlanta Braves. When poorly attended games at Fulton County Stadium became a staple on cable television in its infancy, Murphy was practically the only reason to watch.
Twice Murphy led the league in homers. Two other years he had the best RBI total. He won multiple Gold Gloves and took home back to back MVPs in 1982 and 1983. Through big chunks of his 15 seasons in Atlanta, the stands were empty. The Braves drew fewer than a million fans in 1988, 1989 and 1990, averaging around 10,000 a game.
Murphy was one of the good guys in the game, giving to charity and earning Co Sportsman of the Year from Sports Illustrated in 1987 as “One of the athletes who care.”
Around that same time, Don Mattingly was the undisputed fan favorite of a generation of Yankee fans. Arriving in the Bronx just as Reggie Jackson left, Mattingly became the best offensive weapon in the American League in the mid 1980’s. Twice he led the league in hits, essentially becoming Wade Boggs with better home run power. He was a batting champ, the best defensive first baseman in the AL and was consistently among the league leaders in on base and slugging.
“Donnie Baseball” won the MVP in 1985 and arguably had a better season the next year when Roger Clemens took home the MVP.
By the end of the 1987 season, both Murphy and Mattingly looked like Hall of Famers. All they needed to do was stay healthy enough to pass some career milestones.
Alas that health eluded them. Almost all of Murphy’s numbers took an alarming dip in 1988 when he was 32 years old. (Back then, that was around the time hitters began to regress.
His home run total dropped by 20. His batting average dropped by nearly 70 points. He lost more than 100 points to his on base percentage. His slugging percentage dropped by nearly 160 points.
He was healthy enough to play every day, but his skills eroded and never came back. And after years of struggling Braves teams and only one appearance in the post season (the 1982 NLCS), Murphy was mercifully dealt to another team.
Midway through the 1990 season, Murphy was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Braves got Jeff Parrett and Jeff Vatcher and Victor Rosario in the deal that also sent Tommy Greene to Philly.
He finished the 1991 season with 18 homers and had 396 career belts at a time when 400 was almost an automatic Cooperstown ticket. But he was hurt for almost all of the 1992 season and hit just 2. For the 1993 season, he joined the expansion Colorado Rockies, hoping the thin air in Mile High Stadium could give him a boost over the top. He failed to homer a single time. He only got two hits in his final 25 at bats. He struck out to Orel Hershiser on May 21st, 1993, his final at bat. He retired with 398 homers.
Mattingly remained an elite hitter through 1989 when he batted .303 with 23 homers, 113 RBI and an .828 OPS. But the Yankees were no longer a contending team. By 1990, they were one of the worst teams in baseball and back issues brought Mattingly’s production crashing to Earth. His home run totals dipped to single digits. His average fell to the .250s and was merely a serviceable hitter.
He put up strong numbers in 1994, but the player’s strike cut short the Yankees bid for a Division Title. In 1995, he played well and finally saw post season action. The Yankees rallied for the first ever American League Wild Card and Mattingly homered in the wild Game 2 victory over the Mariners.
When he went deep, Yankee Stadium rocked to its foundation as the beloved Mattingly finally was experiencing October glory.
But Seattle rallied and won the final three games including the Game 5 classic when the Yankees blew an 11th inning lead.
Mattingly was still a serviceable player but the team moved on and acquired Tino Martinez to play first base and his career was over.
Like Murphy, he failed to pass any of the critical milestones. He fell short of 2,200 hits and had just 22 homers. Also like Murphy, his Hall of Fame candidacy has its supporters, but his vote tally is only good enough to keep him on the ballot and not be a real contender.
So two beloved players had the hard part of immortality taken care of (the elite seasons and dominating the league) but just couldn’t hang around.
But also consider their bad luck when it comes to the eras they played. Murphy and Mattingly toiled for their franchises in the 1980s when they seldom were legit contenders and combined for 2 post season appearances and no victories.
Think about what those two franchises became. The Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees were the dominant teams of the 1990s. Think about when Murphy and Mattingly’s careers ended and the team’s domination began
Murphy was dealt during the 1990 season after 15 seasons with Atlanta. THE VERY NEXT YEAR, the Braves go from worst to first and play in the World Series. Atlanta would play in 14 consecutive post seasons, winning the 1995 World Series and winning additional pennants in 1991, 1992, 1996 and 1999.
Even his time in Philadelphia was snake bit. He was cut during 1993’s Spring Training and the Phillies went on to win the pennant that year.
Don Mattingly arrived in New York on the heels of a great run of pennants in 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1981. His first year was 1982 and the Yankees began the biggest pennant drought since the arrival of Babe Ruth. He finishes his career at the end of the 1995 playoffs. Like Murphy THE NEXT YEAR the Yankees won the World Series (against the Braves no less.) The Yankees went on a rampage, winning it all in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000 and pennants in 2001 and 2003.
To add insult to Mattingly’s injury, he returned to the Yankee organization as a coach in 2004 in time to see them collapse in the ALCS against the Red Sox.
After a failed bid to succeed Joe Torre as Yankee manager, he joined the Dodgers organization for the 2008 season. Guess what happened in 2009? The Yankees won the World Series again. As a coach and as a manager for the Dodgers, he has participated in 3 NLCS but still is waiting for his first World Series.
It must be agony for Murphy and Mattingly to see the likes of Xander Boegarts or Madison Bumgarner jump right from the minor leagues to a World Series title while they toiled for years and years and never tasted a pennant. And to know that if they just lasted one more year with the team that they gave so much to that they would be able to have a celebration and a final cap to a wonderful career that fell short of a title and Cooperstown.
They are going to be THE hero for Yankee and Brave fans of a certain age, but their significance will be lost over the generations.
Murphy and Mattingly represented the best for a bad run of two proud teams. It is cruel that they did not experience just a little glory.
Instead they need to be satisfied with a wonderful career, a retired number and millions of dollars and hero worship from a generation. It isn’t enough.