One player was one of the most hyped prospects of his generation, a tall and terrific athlete taken fourth overall in the 1973 MLB draft and also drafted by NBA and ABA teams. The other was a late bloomer repeatedly passed over by all 30 teams until the 19th round of the '79 draft. One was an established veteran signed to a lucrative ten-year contract and the other was playing in his first full season. Yet both men found themselves neck and neck in competition for the batting title, an honor coveted by almost everyone who plays the sport.
Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly were teammates on the '84 New York Yankees, a good team that was stuck behind a fantastic Detroit Tigers team in the American League East that started the season 35-5 and never looked back. As the season wore down in September, the Yankees did not have much to play for, but Winfield and Mattingly were in a tight competition for the batting crown. Even though he had never hit above .308 in a season before, it did not surprise fans that Winfield was chasing the honor. A few days shy of his 33rd birthday, he was an eight-time All-Star and a member of baseball's elite already. He was among the best players in the game.
Mattingly though had appeared in only 98 games over two seasons before winning the starting job at first base. He impressed manager Yogi Berra with his dedicated work regimen and he never struggled in the minor leagues, hitting .332/.403/.471 across four levels in five seasons. Mattingly had a lithe frame, but he clearly knew how to hit. He also immediately established himself as a stellar defensive first baseman and gave New York City a great debate about who was the better fielder--him or Keith Hernandez.
Although the Yankees were unable to catch Detroit, Winfield and Mattingly gave fans a summer to remember by competing for the batting title. By the end of August, Winfield was barely ahead of Mattingly by three percentage points, .352 to .349. It would come down to the final day of the season in a four-game series at home against the Tigers. Mattingly and Winfield hit third and fourth respectively in the order, as they had for most of the season. Mattingly certainly benefited from batting ahead of Winfield, as it ensured that he received many pitches to hit.
Entering the last day, Winfield led Mattingly, .3410 to .3395. A rookie named Randy O'Neal started for the Tigers and Mattingly lined a single to right field in the first inning. Winfield grounded into a forceout, and he fell behind Mattingly in the race, .3406 to .3404. Mattingly expanded his lead with a third inning double to the right field corner while Winfield walked. He hit another double in his next at bat, his 44th of the season, but Winfield kept pace by beating out an infield single to third base. They both were retired in their next at bats, and the race came down to the last at bat. If Winfield got a hit and Mattingly made an out, Winfield would be the winner.
Mattingly put this issue to rest by grounding a single off second baseman Scotty Earl's glove against Tigers relief ace Willie Hernandez (who won both the AL MVP and Cy Young for some reason), clinching the batting title with a .343 batting average. It was his league-leading 207th hit of the season.Winfield grounded into a forceout, retiring Mattingly. Berra pinch-ran Scott Bradley for Winfield so both players could come off the field together, to a standing ovation.
The '84 AL batting race ended in a win for Mattingly 28 years ago today.