Why The New York Yankees Are The Greatest: Part 16

Perry ArnoldSenior Analyst IJanuary 20, 2009

Donnie Baseball. The Hit Man. Donald Arthur Mattingly is one of the most revered players in New York Yankees history.


Mattingly was born in Evansville, Indiana in 1961. He was good enough as a high school player to be mentioned in Sports Illustrated. But most major league teams shied away from him thinking he was going to go to college at nearby Indiana State.


Mattingly was passed through the 1979 draft until the New York Yankees chose him in the 19th round. This was the year after the Yankees had won their second straight World Series and any player drafted by the Yankees must have expected to be on the top of the baseball world.


Mattingly was amazing in the minor leagues, but it still took him three years to make it to New York. The Yankees had another big prospect at first base, Steve Balboni, and he was thought of more highly than Donnie.


Most fans forget that when Mattingly came to the Yankees late in the 1982 season his job at first was not secure. In fact he played six games in the outfield that season and would be stationed in the outfield in forty-eight games in 1983.


But Balboni was not fitted for Yankee Stadium. He was a big right handed hitter who could not take advantage of the short porch in right. And he struck out too much.


So Mattingly got his chance to take over at first and Yankee management never looked back. In 1984, his second full season in the majors, Donnie led the league in hitting with an average of .343.


By 1985 Mattingly would lead the Yankees in almost every offensive category and would be named MVP that year. He hit 35 home runs that year, drove in 145 runs and finished the season with a .324 batting average.


And he was great at first base, one of the finest first basemen ever to play the position.  Over the course of his career he would win nine Gold Glove awards in a row. And he had such good hands that despite being left handed, he even played three games at third base.


From 1984 through 1990 Mattingly developed a power swing that took advantage of his home field. And yet he continued to hit for average. In 1986 he had his highest year for average at .352, finishing second in the American League.


In 1987 he tied a record by hitting home runs in eight consecutive games and also set a major league record by hitting six grand slams in that one year. He would finish the 1987 season with a .327 batting average.


But ’87 would prove an unfortunate year for Mattingly as well. Horseplay in the locker room with teammate Bob Shirley caused a back injury that would get progressively worse through the years. And the injury caused him to change his swing as he got older.


Don went on the disabled list for the first time in 1990 with his back bothering him. And by that time he had lost his power stroke and became more of a slap hitter.


In three years from 1985-1987 Mattingly had hit 96 home runs while striking out only 114 times. But in his last five years in the league, he would hit only 53 home runs.


Also disappointing to Mattingly is that he came up to the Yankees the year after they had been in the World Series. They would not return to the post season until his final year as an active player, 1995.


That year they won the wild card to get in the playoffs but lost to the Seattle Mariners.  The year before, in 1994, the Yankees were leading their division when a strike in August shortened the season and did away with the World Series that year.


Mattingly retired after the 1995 season, having played in 1785 games. His career batting average was .307. He had 222 home runs and drove in 1099 runs. 


In 1991, he had also been named as the tenth Yankee captain in their storied history. And he is considered by many to be the greatest Yankee to have never played in a World Series.


Mattingly returned to the Yankees as a special instructor in Spring Training in 1997.  Following the 2003 season manager, Joe Torre, named Mattingly as Yankee hitting coach, a position he would keep until he became Torre’s bench coach for the 2007 season.


When Torre declined an offer to return as Yankee manager at a reduced salary after the 2007 season, Mattingly was one of the top candidates to be the new Yankee manager.  Joe Girardi got that job and Mattingly left the Yankees to join Torre with the Dodgers.


But Mattingly remains among the most beloved Yankees of all time.  He played with class and quiet reserve. But he was great. If not for back injuries that changed his game and shortened his career a plaque in Cooperstown may have been a sure thing.


But Donnie Baseball got his plaque in Yankee Stadium.  On August 31, 1997 his No. 23 was retired and his plaque was mounted on the wall in Monument Park.


Don Mattingly is just one of the reasons the New York Yankees are the greatest team in the history of baseball.