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Hartnett: Don Mattingly’s Hall Of Fame Candidacy Deserves Another Look

Before Derek Jeter, Donnie Baseball Owned The Bronx
Don Mattingly (credit: Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

Don Mattingly (credit: Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

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‘Hart of the Order’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

On this day 26 years ago, Don Mattingly stepped to the plate at Arlington Stadium against Jose Guzman and made rarefied baseball history.

Mattingly leaned back and delivered a line-drive home run over the right-field wall at Arlington Stadium, becoming the first player in American League history to homer in eight consecutive games. Ken Griffey, Jr. would go on to match the feat in 1993 and Dale Long was the first to accomplish this in the National League for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956.

Amazingly, Mattingly had collected 10 home runs during the stretch. It was a time when Donnie Baseball established himself as one of the most dominant first basemen in Major League Baseball history. Between 1985 and 1987, Mattingly remarkably hit 96 home runs and struck out just 114 times.

1987 marked the third consecutive season that Mattingly was awarded the Silver Slugger Award. He had captured three consecutive Gold Glove  Awards and eventually took that total to nine before hanging up the spikes following his final season in 1995.

After the 1987 season, Mattingly’s numbers began to dip south due to recurring back troubles. Still, he was able to extend his All-Star streak to six consecutive seasons before an injury-plagued 1990 season.

Tensions began to turn chaotic inside the offices and clubhouse at old Yankee Stadium. The Bronx Bombers nearly sent one of their most beloved legends packing a year later in 1991. It sounds unthinkable considering Mattingly’s stellar legacy and the passionate adoration he garnered among fans — yet the Yankees nearly traded away their iconic first baseman in 1991.

YANKEES ALMOST PUSHED MATTINGLY OUT THE DOOR IN 1991

On August 15, 1991, the Yankees suspended Mattingly for failing to keep his hair at the businessman-like length enforced by owner George M. Steinbrenner.

“I haven’t been a problem guy and that’s why it hurt me to be treated this way,” Mattingly told the New York Times after the incident. “I definitely didn’t need this.”

Mattingly never caused a problem in the clubhouse. He never embarrassed the Yankees’ organization off the field, either. In modern times, Alex Rodriguez tends to land on the front and back pages of major New York tabloids and the front page of Deadspin for all the wrong reasons. Donnie Baseball was the ultimate teammate, a no-nonsense character and a beloved leader. And he wore the famous pinstripes with pride.

Yet manager Stump Merrill decided to the kick the hornet’s nest. Merrill demanded before the game that Mattingly cut his hair, or he would be taken out of the lineup.

Mattingly was publicly embarrassed by the organization he gave everything for. The face of the franchise was benched and fined by the Yankees. Through the most ridiculous of team rules, the Yankees made Mattingly turn his head and consider his options. Mattingly put in a trade request.

“Maybe I don’t belong in the organization anymore,” Mattingly explained to reporters a day after his benching. “Maybe this is their way of saying we don’t need you anymore.”

Mattingly fired verbal bullets at general manager Gene Michael.

“It’s kind of silly to me, but we’re not winning and this is Stick’s club,” Mattingly stated. “He wants an organization that will be puppets for him and do what he wants.”

Eventually, cooler heads prevailed. Mattingly trimmed his hair and Michael didn’t fully search out trade options. The unpopular Merrill was fired and new manager Buck Showalter took charge in 1992, laying down the foundation for the Bombers’ dynasty years later under Joe Torre.

The hair-cutting fiasco was lampooned on The Simpsons in the 1992 episode “Homer At The Bat,” where Mr. Burns demanded Mattingly to trim his sideburns and proceeded to kick Mattingly off his company softball team stocked full of Major League ringers.

MATTINGLY’S ONE PLAYOFF APPEARANCE WAS MEMORABLE

In the first season of the MLB’s Wild-Card format, Mattingly led an underdog Yankees team into the playoffs for the first time since 1981. A year after a players’ strike robbed the Bombers of the playoffs in the 1994 season, the Yankees battled to the last day of the season, clinching a playoff birth in game number 162.

Mattingly took full advantage of his only appearance on the playoff stage, batting .417 with a home run and 6 RBIs in the 1995 American League Division Series. His go-ahead homer in Game 2 against the Seattle Mariners prompted play-by-play announcer Gary Thorne to yell, “Hang on to the roof!” as Yankee Stadium rocked in ecstatic joy.

In the deciding Game 5, Mattingly hit a tie-breaking ground-rule double in the sixth inning to pull the Bombers ahead, 4-2. The Yankees’ celebrations would later turn sour as Jack McDowell gave up a line-drive double to Edgar Martinez, sending Griffey home to score the ALDS-winning run. A young and unknown Mariano Rivera sat helplessly in the away bullpen at the Kingdome.

MATTINGLY DECLINES A CALL FROM THE ORIOLES

Mattingly chose not to make his retirement official and planned to sit out the 1996 season. He did receive a call from the rival Baltimore Orioles.

At the time, the Yankees-Orioles rivalry had superseded the more traditional Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. Steinbrenner and Orioles owner Peter Angelos were the bitterest of enemies. Having fought over the services of free-agent David Cone and lost, Angelos was eager to serve revenge in its cruelest form by luring Mattingly to Camden Yards.

Mattingly’s agent, Jim Krivacs, received a call from the Orioles at the All-Star break. Baltimore was desperate to land Mattingly to pull the clubhouse together and get a designated hitter. Mattingly politely declined and the Orioles went on to acquire Eddie Murray.

It’s one of those things you wonder about. What if Mattingly decided to spring to action and join the Orioles in 1996. Perhaps he would have proved to be the difference between the rivals in the 1996 ALDS. 11-year-old Jeffrey Maier stealing the ball from Tony Tarasco’s glove in right field would have never happened in Game 1.

Thankfully for Yankees fans, Mattingly stayed true to his word, continued to sit out the 1996 season and eventually made his retirement official in 1997.

HALL OF FAME WORTHY?

It’s unlikely that Mattingly will never be enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He only received 13.2 percent of the 2013 vote.

Still, there are a number of players who earned their Hall of Fame plaque through defensive excellence. Bill Mazeroski was elected by the Veterans Committee in 2001 for his eight Gold Glove Awards for the Pirates at second base. Beloved Yankee Phil Rizzuto’s numbers weren’t Hall of Fame worthy, yet he got the call to the Hall in 1994 due to his place on dominant Yankees teams of the 1940s and 50s.

More than his numerous back issues, Mattingly’s Hall of Fame push suffered simply from his career taking place in a rare era of Yankee mediocrity. He began his career a year after the Yankees’ losing appearance in the 1981 World Series and sat out their magical year of 1996.

HARTNETT: THE CASE FOR MATTINGLY

Donnie Baseball deserves another look from Hall of Fame voters. Between 1984-1987, Mattingly averaged 29 home runs and 120 RBIs per season. His on-base plus slugging during that stretch was .918, .939, .967 and .937.

Mattingly walked 588 times and only struck out 444 times. He was a career .307 batter and posted a lifetime on-base percentage of .358. His 222 home runs and 1,099 RBIs were amassed mostly in a pre-juiced era of the 1980s, against further fences and dominant pitching.

His stellar defense that earned him nine Gold Glove Awards — combined with his six All-Star appearances, three Silver Slugger Awards, the 1985 MVP and 1984 batting title —  form a considerable resume.

Donnie Baseball’s Hall of Fame candidacy deserves another look.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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