Don Mattingly: The bricklayer of a baseball dynasty

File Jul 22, 7 36 58 PM

I’ve now been a die-hard Yankee fan long enough to understand what comes with it, and believe me I understand all of it: I know I’m not from New York, I know I grew up in South Dakota, I know the payroll, I know people hate A-Rod (or did, he’s actually great on TV) , I know they blew 3-0 in ’04, I know the “Yankees suck! Yankees suck! Yankees suck!” and the whole nine-yards.

The good news is I’m now old enough to know that none of that matters to me nor does it bother me. I truly believe I understand the club and the franchise and the team top to bottom just as good as any true Bronx season ticket holder. I’ve been to the city and to enough ballgames there to know that this is indeed true. I get the MLB package every season to catch as many games as I can. To me, the beauty of baseball overall is beyond any one player and any one franchise so it essentially is bullet proof. Haven’t you heard the James Earl Jones speech in ‘Field of Dreams’??? I love the MLB, I love watching big leaguers compete, I love the high-level battles and I love how good they are. Plus the good news is that the way the game is now, you really can’t just stack your squad with the best offseason free agents and win a title every year. (I also think that the 2009 Yankees will be the last team to be successful at this and that will be a story for another day). Well, actually Boston continues to sign every big name free agent that comes up even though all the while their “RSN” mantra was built on being the “Anti-Yankees” when in reality they are now basically the Yankees. This is now true. At least Chris Sale seems to be working out much better than Panda and Carl Crawford. Anyway.

In today’s game, you need to grow your talent and they need to be good when they get to the Big Leagues. If you miss too many, you won’t be good. That’s the way it is. But in reality I don’t need to be a Yankee defender/apologist. But what I do want to get into is a three word subject:

Donald. Arthur. Mattingly.

Growing up as a kid, the Yankees weren’t really all that great. In fact, they hit rock-bottom in around 1990 and were terrible. But one of the brightest moments of this era was the career of Mattingly. Mattingly is my #1 favorite athlete of All-Time. To me, he was my original Eddie Vedder. What I mean by that is he was my original hero: the guy I checked box scores of every day, the guy my dad would always tell me when he homered, the guy that I collected the most cards of (this is true, I have over 350+ Mattingly cards and haven’t met anyone in the world who has more. Even though today all 350 cards combined are probably worth about $65). He was left handed, I’m left handed. He was gritty, tough, had a sweet mustache and a constant five o’clock shadow. But beyond all that he was ready to play every damn day.

Prior to a back injury in 1987 that ended up lingering and worsening for him thereafter, Donnie Baseball was one of the top players in the game. Mattingly still holds Yankee records for most hits in a season (238 in 1986), doubles in a season (53 in 1986), and holds the MLB record for grand slams in a season (6 in 1987). He was the MVP of the 1985 season, and as I type this I can’t help but wonder how in bloody hell he didn’t win it again in 1986? He hit .352 in ’86. Wait, who the hell won it then? Give me a sec while I check Google………………………………….Roger Clemens was AL MVP in ’86. Ok, got it.

Recently, Sweeny Murti (@YankeesWFAN) of WFAN New York Radio put together a great podcast (30 With Murti) that gave an inside look at when Mattingly as a 26 year old in 1987 homered in 8 straight games. The eight straight homer games generated a lot of attention and media coverage, and became one of the biggest stories in sports that summer. Yet during the season Mattingly never once made it about himself and always reverted back to the team. It was always about “the team, the team, the team” and never about him. The majority of MLB writers covering him during this time still speak fondly of this. He literally did this his entire career, he constantly downplayed his achievements. No matter what happened, it was always about moving forward and playing winning baseball. Hmmmmmmm….Does this sounds familiar? There seems to have been a guy named Jeter that mimicked this formula for twenty years.

There’s a great clip on the Murti podcast from a joking Mitch Williams, who was a young pitcher with the Texas Rangers in 1987: “Mattingly goes to the equipment manager in the locker room every year and says ‘give me a pair of pants that are too big, give me a jersey that doesn’t fit, and a pair of lightening-fast hands and I’ll go play.'”

Mattingly’s back injuries worsened each year after 1989, and there’s no question it limited him from being the same hitter he was before the injury. But he learned to play through it, to fight through the pain and continue to battle at-bats each and every ballgame. He did this until 1995. Right around that time, the Yankees organization started brining up key young players. Starting in 1991 with the debut of Bernie Williams, and culminating with other young players Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter. The latter four each made their Major League debuts during Mattingly’s last season in 1995. What happened with these players and teams after is a run of success that more than likely will be unmatched for quite some time in modern baseball: 4 titles in five years starting in 1996 and three straight in 1998, 1999, and 2000.

It’s always bummed me out that Mattingly missed out on ’96, but every player from that team speaks of Mattingly and his influence of why they won and also how each of them approached the game everyday as a professional. Mattingly wasn’t there physically, but he certainly had a profound impact on that championship dynasty. There’s no question that the selflessness of those clubs was a direct influence of Mattingly. He truly laid the foundation.

There’s not an anecdote about the Core Four that hasn’t been told already. It’s a part of history, and some would argue it’s been told too much and at times has seemed difficult for the franchise to move on from. Hence Derek Jeter Day, Derek Jeter Evening, Derek Jeter Morning, Derek Jeter Brunch, Derek Jeter everything at Yankee Stadium in the last couple years. But the most excited I get is during those times when a member of those championship teams talks about what Mattingly meant to them in their development. Donnie Baseball paved the way for them. He dug the foundation, he laid the bricks.

Author: Joe Janssen

Born in South Dakota in the late 1900's

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