Beyond his considerable skill against American League pitchers, Don Mattingly was not blessed with the gift of great timing. He was the golden child of the Great Yankees Dark Age that stretched between the Billy Martin/Bob Lemon teams of the late 1970s and early '80s and Joe Torre's end-of-the-millennium dynasty. He debuted in 1982, the year after New York finished a stretch of four World Series appearances in six seasons, and retired in 1995, one year before it kicked off a run of six trips to the Fall Classic in eight years.
At his peak, "Donnie Baseball" was both an outstanding hitter and a slick fielder, but a back injury sapped his power, not only shortening that peak but also bringing his career to a premature end at age 34, too soon to enjoy the ensuing celebrations in the Bronx.
Mattingly debuted on the 2001 Hall of Fame ballot, the last one before I began my own annual reviews, but it was quickly clear that he didn't have the raw numbers or the support of enough voters to gain entry to Cooperstown. After receiving 28.2 percent of the vote his first time around, he dipped to 20.3 percent in 2002. He's continued to fade, and after slipping into single digits with 8.2 percent in 2014, he's reached his final year of eligibility, one of three players grandfathered into the rule change shortening candidates' potential ballot stays from 15 years to 10. Though his candidacy is basically playing out the string, it deserves a review nonetheless.
Avg. HOF 1B
A native of Evansville, Ind., Mattingly was not only naturally talented when it came to baseball, but was also ambidextrous. In Little League, he switch-pitched occasionally, throwing three innings righty and three more lefty. By the time of the 1979 draft, he had committed to attend Indiana State University on a scholarship, but the Yankees chose him in the 19th round, and he surprised his family by deciding to sign, receiving a $23,000 bonus. Early on during his minor league tenure, his lack of speed and power concerned the organization to the point that team brass considered moving him to second base because of his ability to throw righthanded. Even so, it was abundantly clear that Mattingly could hit, as he topped .300 at every stop in the minors with good plate discipline and outstanding contact skills, even if he never exceeded 10 homers.
Mattingly was just 21 when he made his major league debut on Sept. 8, 1982, but he played sparingly that month, mostly in leftfield. While he broke camp with the Yankees the following spring, he was back at Triple A Columbus by mid-April, as Ken Griffey Sr. held down first base. Recalled in late June, Mattingly spent more time in the outfield than at first and showed little power, hitting .283/.333/.409 with four homers in 305 plate appearances.
When he took over regular first base duties the following year, he broke out in a big way: .343/.381/.537 with 23 homers and 110 RBIs. He led the league in batting average, hits (207) and doubles (44), ranking fifth in WAR (6.3) and making his first All-Star team and finishing fifth in the AL MVP voting. He won the award the next year thanks largely to a whopping 145 RBIs, though the rest of his stellar season wasn't radically different from what he'd done in '84: .324/.371/.567 with 35 homers, 48 doubles and 6.4 WAR, again fifth in the league. He also took home the first of nine Gold Gloves that he'd win in a 10-year span. The Yankees won 97 games that year, the most they ever won during his 14-year career, but they finished two games behind the Blue Jays in the AL East standings.
In 1986, Mattingly racked up a league-leading 238 hits, 53 doubles and 31 homers en route to a monster .352/.394/.573 line. His slugging percentage led the league, his batting average ranked second to Wade Boggs' .357 and his 7.2 WAR placed third behind Boggs (7.9) and Jesse Barfield (7.6). Mattingly's numbers took a dip the following year when he missed nearly three weeks due to a back injury suffered while wrestling teammate Bob Shirley in the clubhouse. Though he was diagnosed with two protruding discs, he actually hit better after returning (.336/.371/.601 with 24 homers) than before (.311/.390/.485 with six homers).
In the coming years, Mattingly would battle back problems with increasing frequency. He dipped from 30 homers and a .559 slugging percentage in 1987 to 18 and .462 in '88, and while the MLB-wide dropoff in slugging percentage after an uncharacteristically homer-saturated year was part of that — from .415 to .378 — it was a sign of things to come. After rebounding to 23 homers and a .303/.351/.477 showing in 1989, his last season as an All-Star, he would never reach 20 or slug even .450 again, nor would he have a season worth more than 2.8 WAR.
By that point, Mattingly was battling George Steinbrenner as much as his own back. When he set a record with an arbitration award of $1.975 million in 1987, the New York owner quipped, "The monkey is clearly on his back. He has to deliver a championship like Reggie Jackson did. [Mattingly's] like all the rest of 'em now. He can't play little Jack Armstrong of Evansville, Ind., anymore." Furthermore, Steinbrenner called him "the most unproductive .300 hitter in baseball," a ridiculous thing to say in an industry where RBI totals were viewed as productivity. Nobody was within 50 RBIs of Mattingly's 1984-87 total at the time Steinbrenner said that.
When Mattingly responded by talking about how many unhappy players the team had, Steinbrenner pressed for an apology behind the scenes and put him on the trading block. At one point, Mattingly was rumored to be part of a deal that would have sent him to the Giants for Will Clark. Eventually, he buried the hatchet and remained in the Bronx, signing a five-year, $19.3 million extension in April 1990.
Alas, that move didn't work out all that well for the franchise. Mattingly hit just 14 homers and slugged .370 over the next two seasons combined, missing seven weeks of the 1990 season due to further back troubles. He rebounded somewhat in 1992 and '93, reaching double digits in homers in each year, but he was never again a true offensive force. After hitting .327/.372/.530 and averaging 27 homers and 5.5 WAR from 1984 to '89 — making him the seventh-most valuable position player in the game during that span — he slipped to .286/.345/.405 with an average of 10 homers and 1.5 WAR over his final six seasons.
In a bittersweet coda to his career, the Yankees finally reached the playoffs on his watch in 1995, and he hit a sizzling .417/.440/.708 during the Division Series against the Mariners, but New York lost an amazing five-game series in the bottom of the 11th of the decisive Game 5. Mattingly retired after the season, and in '96 his replacement, Tino Martinez, helped power the Yankees to their first world championship since 1978.
Given the emphasis voters place on career totals and milestones, it is almost impossible for a player to make the Hall of Fame if his career ends before age 35. Since the end of World War II, only four players -- pitchers Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Catfish Hunter and shortstop Lou Boudreau -- have been elected by the BBWAA under such circumstances. Kirby Puckett and Larry Doby played through their age-35 seasons before calling it quits, while Ron Santo and George Kell, who last played at age 34, didn't gain entry until the Veterans Committee took up their cases. Unlike Puckett or Koufax, Mattingly doesn't even have the advantage of walking away when he was still at his peak; his play had been subpar for more than half a decade when he left.
Thus it's not surprising that Mattingly falls far short on the JAWS front, ranking 36th among first basemen, above only two Hall of Famers: "Sunny Jim" Bottomley and George "High Pockets" Kelly. He has received little support from the voters, falling below 25 percent in his second year, below 20 percent in his third and ranging between 8.2 percent (2014) and 17.8 percent (2012) since, with no clear pattern to his support beyond its lack. Now he is about to age off the ballot, just as Jack Morris did last year, albeit with much less fanfare.
Still, Mattingly's Cooperstown case may not be entirely closed. While he has fallen into his share of tactical traps as a manager in four years at the helm of the Dodgers, he has shown some degree of promise in guiding the team to a .547 winning percentage despite the franchise's bankruptcy, sale and a seemingly endless barrage of injuries and other distractions — including one of the most chaotic clubhouses in recent memory. Los Angeles has won back-to-back NL West titles, coming within two wins of a trip to the World Series in 2013, and it appears to be armed for perennial contention again in 2015 and beyond. Like mentor Joe Torre, who was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Expansion Era committee last year, Mattingly could augment his case considerably via his work in the dugout, though he probably needs his own Don Zimmer as a bench coach to avoid future pitfalls.
In other words, Donnie Baseball may yet have his day.