clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #14 Don Mattingly

Donnie Baseball was a bright light in a forgettable stretch of years for the Yankees.

New York Yankees vs Seattle Mariners, 1995 AL Division Series Set Number: X49303

Full Name: Donald Arthur Mattingly
Position: First base
Born: April 20, 1961 (Evansville, IN)
Yankee Years: 1982-95
Primary number: 23
Yankee statistics: 1,785 G, .307/.358/.471, 442 2B, 20 3B, 222 HR, 124 wRC+, 42.4 rWAR, 40.7 fWAR

Biography

In yesterday’s entry to this series, we went over another former Yankee captain in Thurman Munson. Today, we dive into the life and career of another: Don Mattingly. Donnie Baseball was an all-around star for the Yankees, in a tenure that was mostly filled with disappointment for the team as a whole.

With a fantastic stretch of peak years in the mid-late 1980s, Mattingly’s excellence on the field may not have led the Bombers to any of their 27 championships, but his skill and poise did not go unnoticed. The Yankees could never quite build around their star first baseman, though he can boast a shelf full of personal awards, as well as the admiration of a fan base.

Early Years

Donald Arthur was born to Bill and Mary Mattingly, in Evansville, Indiana in April of 1961. As the youngest of five children, Don tagged along with his older siblings, including to neighborhood baseball and Wiffle ball games. Even as a young kid, often playing against older competition, Mattingly’s skills showed themselves early.

Mattingly attended Reitz Memorial High School in Evansville, and stood out among the competition as a three-sport athlete. He starred on the football field and the basketball court, but it would become more and more evident that he was destined for greatness on the diamond. He helped lead Reitz Memorial to a 59-game win streak at one point, which included a state championship.

By his senior year in 1979, Mattingly’s prowess on the baseball field was undeniable, and it garnered national attention as scouts began attending his games. Mattingly had committed to play baseball at Indiana State University, which of course, dropped his draft stock as teams assumed he would elect to hold that commitment.

In the 19th round of the 1979 Draft, however, the Yankees took a chance and selected the ambidextrous high school star. It almost goes without saying since this article exists as a testament to the fact, but the late-round pick paid off quite well.

Minor League Dominance, Ascent to Show

Mattingly jumped right into things, beginning his professional career in ‘79 with the Low-A Oneonta Yankees. There, he showed Upstate New York and beyond that he was as good a hitter as they come. In 53 games, he hit .349, and a year later he followed it up in A-ball with a league-leading .358 average and a .920 OPS. In 1981 and ‘82, Mattingly ascended through the ranks in Double- and Triple-A, and while the numbers weren’t quite as eye-popping, he handled the promotions quite well in the batter’s box.

After that solid Triple-A season in 1982, Mattingly earned the call to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September. It was a moment that stood out in his career, as he said “I think the time that I really think about the most is just being called up and walking into Yankee Stadium for the first time.”

Wearing No. 46 at the time rather than the number that he would soon make famous, Mattingly recorded a pair of hits in seven games that season.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

The future star earned himself a roster spot in 1983, but was unable to find much playing time before returning to Triple-A Columbus. He once again tore up minor league pitching, with an OPS over 1.000, and when a roster spot opened up due to Bobby Murcer’s retirement, Mattingly was called to fill it. Donnie Baseball would never look back.

Mattingly would begin to make his mark quickly that season. Funnily enough, he became one of the few left-handed throwers to play second base in the resumption of the George Brett pine tar game. But beyond that, he showed he could at least survive in the big leagues with a 107 OPS+ in 305 plate appearances. As the years to come would show, Mattingly could do a helluva lot more than just survive.

The Peak Years

Prior to spring training in 1984, Yankee manager Yogi Berra assured that Mattingly would have a spot with the team, but it may not have been the most prominent one. Though it could have been worse, his mental focus on always improving helped him burst out of a subdued here-and-there role.

“This is kind of hard to swallow without getting any kind of chance at all... and there’s no way I can accept that. There’s no way I can say, OK, sit back, relax and do that. I feel I can change their mind or at least make it a very tough decision to sit me down.”

A scorching spring indeed changed Berra’s mind, and Mattingly had first base locked down heading into Opening Day. Donnie Baseball started the season hot, and the decision paid immediate dividends. Though he had never shown much power in his rise through the minors, Mattingly developed a more than respectable power stroke in his age-23 campaign. Combine that with his already-refined ability to hit the ball, and you’ve got yourself a star.

The lefty had already surpassed his minor league best in homers by the end of June, and with an average approaching .340, he earned his first career American League All-Star nod. The Yankees fell out of contention in the second half, but Mattingly just kept on mashing. He and teammate Dave Winfield found themselves in a battle for the batting title, a fight Mattingly would win on the season’s final day.

All told, the Yankee first baseman led the league in several categories, with his .343 average, 44 doubles, and 207 hits. He finished with a surprising 23 homers, a 153 wRC+, and a fifth-place MVP finish, and it was only the beginning for Mattingly.

Donnie took his already impressive first full season and built upon it. Paired with newly acquired star Rickey Henderson, Mattingly was in store for an even better 1985. With Henderson’s elite on-base skills, and speed to advance once he got there, he was the perfect table-setter for Mattingly to drive in runs. The plan worked out swimmingly, as Henderson led the league with 146 runs, and Mattingly in RBI with 145. It was another step forward in the power department as well, as he swatted 35 homers, including 26 in the final 76 games. He led the league again in doubles, as well as RBI and total bases, while collecting another All-Star selection, a Silver Slugger, and the first of five straight Gold Gloves. His monster season was capped off with his selection as the 1985 American League MVP.

Despite the success of he and Henderson together, the Yanks narrowly missed the postseason yet again, though they did win 97 games in the pre-Wild Card era. Despite not being able to make that leap, Mattingly kept rolling at the elite level into 1986. Although ‘85 was his only MVP, the following season was probably the best of his excellent career.

That year, he posted league-leading numbers with a still-franchise record 238 hits, 53 doubles (also still the Yankees’ all-time mark), 388 total bases, a .573 SLG, and .967 OPS. He swatted another 31 homers, and set high-water marks with an elite 160 wRC+ and 7.2 fWAR. The Bombers, however, were again on the outside looking in on the playoffs come season’s end, as the Red Sox won the AL East. To throw salt on the wound, Mattingly came in second to a Boston player for both the batting crown (Wade Boggs) and MVP (Roger Clemens).

1987 was another excellent year for Mattingly, despite an uncharacteristically rough first month. He would find his swing though, and blast 30 homers for the third straight year, while slashing .327/.378/.558. He of course earned another All-Star selection, as well as more Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers. He also set an MLB record with six grand slams, and tied another one with homers in eight consecutive games.

This incredible streak came after a June injury, where he fairly significantly hurt his back, by means that are unclear, but lie somewhere between clubhouse horseplay and fielding practice. He returned to finish the season on fire, but it is something we will revisit.

1988 and ‘89 were both good seasons for Mattingly as he continued his excellent stretch amid Yankee mediocrity. He managed a 125 wRC+ over the two seasons, slashing .307/.352/.470, and earning two more All-Star nods and a pair of Gold Gloves.

A Rapid Decline for the Captain

At the very beginning of the 1990 season, Mattingly signed a five-year $19.3 million deal, making him the highest paid player in baseball. Despite the big price tag, this was also the time that Donnie Baseball’s career took a turn for the worse. By mid-season, he was hitting under .250, with essentially no power in the bat. It was not without reason, as the back he injured a few years prior was acting up again, and it was enough to force him to miss most of the season from July onward. It was the worst year of his career, as he hit just five homers with a 72 wRC+ in 428 plate appearances.

He underwent extensive therapy in the offseason, which at least allowed him to play a full season in ‘91, and was also named the Yankees captain, a decision that resonated well with him and his teammates. With that new-found responsibility came some controversy as well, The new captain asked to be traded that summer, amidst the struggles of the team, and was also benched for a game as he refused Steinbrenner’s “clean-cut” rules. It was a time of true disarray for the Yankees, and Mattingly was caught in the middle of it.

It was a subpar offensive year again, as Mattingly had a 99 wRC+ and hit just nine home runs in 152 games. He would experience a couple of bounce-back seasons in 1992 and ‘93, hitting 14 and 17 home runs respectively, and posting a 114 OPS+ in that span. He was no slouch, but his career was slowing down awfully fast for a 32-year-old former superstar. He continued this solid level of play in 1994, a year where the Yankees seemed poised to make the postseason for the first time in their captain’s career, before the season was cut short due to the players’ strike. It had been perhaps his best chance at a championship run.

The strike was settled in time for a mostly full season in 1995 however, and the dream could remain alive. It was another disappointing year for Mattingly, now 34, and his worst in a few years with just six homers and a .754 OPS. Despite this, his long wait for meaningful October baseball was over.

After looking sluggish for a good chunk of ‘95, the Yankees turned on the jets in late August and went an MLB-best 25-6 down the stretch. It wasn’t enough to catch Boston in the AL East, but thanks to the expanded postseason, they made it as the very first Wild Card team. Mattingly was playoff-bound and had an ALDS date with the Mariners after Seattle finished their own impressive comeback to overtake the Angels for the AL West crown.

Donnie Baseball would make the most of his time. Following a thunderous ovation from the Bronx faithful in pregame introductions, he began the series with a two-hit performance in Game 1. Then in a back-and-forth Game 2, Mattingly produced one of the most rewatchable moments in Yankee history. After Ruben Sierra tied the game with a homer in the sixth, the captain stepped up.

Donnie’s blast sent the Stadium into a frenzy, and helped capture the dramatic win to put them up 2-0 in the series. The Mariners took the next two games back in Seattle, and the series was set for a decisive Game 5. It is a well-documented game in baseball history, another back-and-forth contest that ultimately ended with Edgar Martínez lacing a double down the left field line, and Ken Griffey Jr. rounding third base and scoring.

Mattingly hit .417 with four doubles and a homer in his first postseason series, a series that was now over. This ultimately turned out to be the end of his 14-year major league career, all of which he played with the Yankees. His back ached so much after Game 5 that he couldn’t even sit down on the miserable flight home from the Kingdome.

The Yankees would go on to win the World Series in 1996.

Legacy and Post-Playing Career

Don Mattingly formally announced his retirement in January of 1997, and later that year had his number was retired in Monument Park. He finished with six All-Star selections, three Silver Sluggers, nine Gold Gloves in a decade, and the 1995 American League MVP award. During his six-year peak of elite play, he averaged 27 homers and a 143 wRC+ and was one of the game’s most valuable players in every sense of the word.

First base tends to be a position where teams stick their worst defenders, but Mattingly is right up there along with crosstown rival Keith Hernandez as one of the greatest to ever play the position. He put on an absolute masterclass of glovework there to win all those fielding honors, and inspired great defenders of the future, like 2009 World Series champion Mark Teixeira.

After a few years at home helping raise his children, Mattingly was ready to fully return to the game in 2004. He was hired as the Yankees’ hitting coach to great success, including a playing pivotal role in Jason Giambi’s revival in ‘05. Mattingly kept that role until the end of 2006, when he was promoted to bench coach.

Following the ‘07 season and the Yankees’ decision to pick Joe Girardi over him to succeed Joe Torre as manager, he followed his skipper to the Dodgers as their hitting coach (though a difficult divorce with his first wife delayed the start). He would succeed Torre as manager, and take them to the postseason in three consecutive seasons from 2013-15, helping spark their remarkable streak of regular-season success that still continues to this day. But the closest he came to the Fall Classic was a six-game NLCS loss to the Cardinals in ‘13.

National League Division Series Game 4: Atlanta Braves v. Los Angeles Dodgers

The two sides parted ways after the Dodgers lost the 2015 NLDS to the upstart Mets, as Dave Roberts took over in LA and Mattingly was hired to manage the Miami Marlins. He endured some tough years there, but he did take them to the postseason in the COVID-shortened 2020, their first playoff trip in 17 years. Although Mattingly captured the NL Manager of the Year honors, the magic quickly faded and Donnie departed the Marlins after 2022. He now serves as the Blue Jays’ bench coach, still seeking that first World Series appearance after 34 seasons as a player, coach, and manager.

Though Mattingly has made a fair mark in the dugout for other franchises, it pales in comparison to his impact on an otherwise dark period for the Yankees. His excellent play was poorly timed as far as the team goes, but that does not diminish its significance.

As his plaque in Monument Park reads, Don Mattingly was “a humble man of grace and dignity, a captain who led by example, proud of the Pinstripe tradition and dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, a Yankee forever.”

Staff rank: 14
Community rank: 13
Stats rank: 25
2013 rank: 18

References

Baseball Reference

FanGraphs

The Baseball Cube

SABR

BR Bullpen

https://www.si.com/mlb/2012/12/19/jaws-and-the-2013-hall-of-fame-ballot-don-mattingly

Jane Gross, “Yanks Won’t Start Mattingly,” New York Times, March 13, 1984.

Murray Chass, “Mattingly’s Monument to Effort,” New York Times, September 1, 1997.

Previously on the Top 100

15. Thurman Munson
Full list to date