Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Donnie Baseball's Coming to Town

Don Mattingly had three misfortunes when he wore the Yankees pinstripes during his playing career. He was called up from the minors one year after the Yankees had been in the World Series for the third time in five seasons and in the playoffs in four of those five seasons.

Second, his work ethic took a toll on his back and shortened the productivity and possibly the length of his career. It definitely impacted his chances at being elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.
Finally, he retired right before the Yankees won four World Series in five years. Don Mattingly left his imprint on the New York Yankees, Yankee Stadium, and Yankees fans around the globe. To this day he is one of the most beloved players to both fans and his former teammates.

Mattingly returns to New York and the new Yankee Stadium for just the second time tonight (His other appearance was for the unveiling of George Steinbrenner's plaque) as the team he manages, the Los Angeles Dodgers, gets ready to play its first ever regular season game at the Stadium.

While he wasn't the babe magnet that Derek Jeter is, Mattingly was every bit the rock star his fellow captain is. He didn't need to go clubbing or appear in his own series of car commercials to be the most popular athlete in the Tri-State area.

From 1984 through 1987, there was arguably no better baseball player on the planet. During the four year stretch, Mattingly averaged 29 home runs, 120 RBI, 102 runs scored, 210 hits, 45 doubles, a .336 batting average, and 350 total bases.

He drove in 145 runs in 1984 and won the AL MVP Award by 93 pts over Kansas City's George Brett. Controversy ensued a year later when Mattingly finished second to pitcher Roger Clemens despite having led the AL in seven offensive categories and won his second of nine Gold Gloves.  He had 238 hits in 1985, 53 of them doubles, and finished with a .967 OPS.

Mattingly's 1987 season included a then record six grand slams. Remarkably, they were the only ones he hit in his career. That same season he tied Dale Long's Major League record by homering in eight straight contests.

However, too many swings off the batting tee and his perseverance to continually improve at the plate took its toll on Mattingly's back. (There has also been a story that Mattingly injured his back messing around with pitcher Bob Shirley in the clubhouse, but both players denied it.) He would only top 20 home runs and 100 RBI one more time in his career.

He went from being extra-ordinary to ordinary at the plate. It's the reason the six time All-Star has fallen short of election to the Hall of Fame. 2,153 career hits, 222 home runs, and 1099 RBI don't cut it in a sport driven by numbers, playoff appearances and championship rings.

Unfortunately, timing was everything when it came to Mattingly's baseball career. There was no wild card playoff entrant for all but one season of Mattingly's career and the Yankees did not win any division titles in his tenure in New York. (They finished in 2nd place three times prior to the 1995 season). That may have changed in 1994 had the players' strike not wiped out the last two months of the regular season and all of the post-season.

Mattingly finally made the playoffs in his final year thanks to baseball's implementation of the wild card in 1995. The playoffs started out like a dream come true in Yankee Stadium. The Yankees beat the Seattle Mariners in the first two games of the best of five series and Mattingly's home run in Game 2 sent the crowd into delirium. (The Game 2 victor was a rookie by the name of Mariano Rivera)

The baseball Gods were not kind though when the series moved out to Seattle. The Mariners won three straight games, the finale in their last at-bat in the 11th inning. The team flight home was extremely emotional as Mattingly said good-bye to his teammates, many of whom felt they had let their leader down. In his only playoff appearance Mattingly hit .417 and had a gaudy 1.148 OPS. It was the captain's 2-run double that snapped a 2-2 tie and given the Yankees the lead in the 6th inning of Game 5, but it was not meant to be. A 14-year career came to an abrupt end.

The team retired Mattingly's number 23 on August 31, 1997, but he still wore it for several seasons as a Spring Training instructor with the team. He was then named the team's hitting coach prior to the 2004 season. After three seasons he became manager Joe Torre's bench coach until Torre's 12 year run ended after the 2007 season.

Mattingly was a finalist with Joe Girardi for the Yankees job and then joined Torre as hitting coach with the Dodgers. He lost out to Manny Acta for the Cleveland Indians job for the 2010 season, but then replaced Torre when he retired after the 2010 season.

The 2013 season came with a lot of expectations after new ownership threw money around like it was going out of style. Injuries and under achievement beset the team early on though and the Dodgers enter tonight's game in last place in the NL West, seven games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks.

There has been talk that Mattingly's job is in jeopardy. No matter what happens, he will always have a home in the Bronx.  The fans will prove that tonight.

Welcome Back Donnie Baseball!

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