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Mudville: July 22, 2024 3:45 am PDT

The Hitman

When Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter retired as an active player, the Yankee organization said it was swearing off captains for a while – and possibly forever – even though there had been a tradition of 15 Yankee team captains, going back over a century.

And prior to Derek Jeter, there had been Don Mattingly. Mattingly was 14th captain of the Yankees, from 1991-1995, after which he retired from his baseball playing days.

Don Mattingly, “The Hitman,” or “Donnie Baseball,” as he came to be known, was once again snubbed by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum (HOF) this week, this time by the Contemporary Baseball Era Committee, although he was on the original BBWAA ballot for 15 years, ending in 2015.

Mattingly landed this year as runner up to the “Crime Dog,” Fred McGriff, in votes; a player who was also drafted by the Yankees (in 1981), and who went on to have a long and storied career with the Blue Jays, Padres, Braves, Rays, Cubs, and Dodgers, retiring in 2004. There’s no question McGriff was HOF worthy at this point; the open question, however, that still remains is whether Donnie Baseball will ever find his own rightful place at Cooperstown.

Over his career, Donnie Baseball was an All-Star six times, won nine Gold Gloves at first base, won three Silver Slugger Awards, was the 1984 Batting Champion, and was the American League 1985 MVP (to go along with three other top-10 finishes for the award). He finished his 14-year career in 1995 with a .307 average, 2,153 hits, 222 homers, and an OPS of .830. Mattingly is, to this very day, the only Yankee player or manager to have his number retired without having won a World Series with the team.

Photo by MLB via Getty Images

Those are some pretty gaudy numbers for a non-HOF’er, and any Yankee fan from the 1980s and early ‘90s will tell you they were sure he was a lock for the HOF. But McGriff’s got a 1995 World Series ring from his time with the Atlanta Braves; and although that achievement would have been the capstone of Mattingly’s career, it eluded him in his only postseason opportunity – ironically in the same year as McGriff won it.

Mattingly retired after the 1995 season due to chronic health issues with his back. He also suffered several other injuries and health concerns (one involving his eye) toward the end of his playing days, or else who knows what would have happened in the Yankee World Series run from 1996-2001? We can always look back and ask, “what if?” – but the truth is, it’s best described by Donnie himself:

“It’s a desire [to be a Hall of Famer],” Mattingly said last week on “The Show with Joel Sherman and Jon Heyman” podcast. “I think every player, it would be something that if you felt like you knew you’ve done enough. Obviously people look at it as being on the borderline, right? There’s people that voted for you, people that didn’t, different committees put you on and things like that. So obviously you’re one of those guys that’s on the borderline.’’

“I don’t know how else to look at it other than you played your cards, proud of my career to an extent,’’ Mattingly said. “I know it didn’t end the way I wanted it to as far as production or time. But those are also cards that you’ve been dealt and you do the best you can with it.”

(Original Caption) Manager Joe Torre (L) and coach Don Mattingly of the Los Angeles Dodgers attend a press conference announcing that Mattingly will manage the Dodgers in 2011 after Torre retires at Dodger Stadium on September 17, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Don Mattingly grew up in Evansville, IN, and was selected by the Yankees in the 1979 amateur draft. He was brought up from the minors to play with the Yankees’ major league team in in 1982, and became the starting first baseman after a successful 1983. His notable playing career achievements are listed earlier in this story, but not yet mentioned was his popularity with the fan base.

Every Yankee fan loved Don Mattingly. He wasn’t just a batter – he was a battler. Those 1980s teams were nothing to write home about. But there was a real bright spot at first base; and boy could he hit and field.

I recall walking into the Modell’s Sporting Goods store on New York City’s Upper East Side in the early-mid-1990s, and gracing the walls as you walked up the stairs to the second floor was a huge banner showcasing none other than Donnie Baseball himself. No identification necessary. If you knew, you knew. He was dressed in full Yankee pinstripes, featuring his trademark eye black, bat in hand. The Hitman.

There was another banner on that wall as well, featuring one of the New York Knicks (yes, they were actually pretty good back then) – but the banner I most remember is the Don Mattingly one. And after Donnie retired, it took a while for it to be replaced by a banner featuring another baseball player. I’m pretty sure it was Derek Jeter (which would have been no surprise); but it’s the Mattingly banner I most remember.

As urban legend has it, in the early ‘90s when Bernie Williams first came up to the majors, he wasn’t hitting very well. Hence, he kept sinking lower and lower in the Yankee line-up. But his locker was the one that sat right next to that of Don Mattingly, who was generous with advice for the young player. One day, Williams arrived at Yankee Stadium only to discover he was set to hit ninth in that day’s game. And Mattingly turned to him and said, “you know Bernie, there’s only one place to go after hitting ninth.”

Don Mattingly #8 of the Miami Marlins makes a pitching change against the Atlanta Braves in the eighth inning at Truist Park on September 4, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Brett Davis/Getty Images)

Word has it that Williams credits Mattingly with jumpstarting his offensive career through moments like those. Mattingly wasn’t just an inspiration to fans; he was an important teammate and leader.

When Tino Martinez joined the Yankees in 1996, he had tremendous shoes to fill. There was a lot of pressure on him to be a true replacement player for the man who had occupied first base for the previous 14 years. The media was full of discussion about whether Tino could do it. Well, he sure did it, as best as anyone could have hoped. But the expectations were huge, and that’s just a testament to what Don Mattingly meant to the Yankees and the team’s fan base during the years he played.

After retiring as a player, Mattingly became a coach for Joe Torre on the 2004 Yankee team, and later followed Torre to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008, eventually becoming Dodger manager in 2011. In 2015, Mattingly and the Dodgers mutually parted ways, and the Hitman went on to become the Miami Marlins’ manager in 2016.

That chapter of Mattingly’s career has just ended, after the 2022 MLB season – and only several months after the Marlins and Derek Jeter, who had been CEO, parted ways. Now Don Mattingly is set to be the Toronto Blue Jays’ bench coach, beginning in the 2023 season, and is back in the Yankees’ MLB division. At the very least, Mattingly’s new role should prove interesting when the two teams meet and face off during the season. At the most, it may turn into a try-out for his eventually becoming the Blue Jays’ manager within the next few years.

When Donnie Baseball’s new role with the Blue Jays was recently announced, many Yankee fans expressed disappointment on social media that he wasn’t returning, in some fashion, to the Yankee organization. Rumor had it that he and Derek Jeter were both in consideration for broadcast roles with the Yankees’ YES Network; but even if there was some truth to those rumors, Mattingly decided he’d prefer to actually remain in the dugout – and not make his living sitting in front of a television microphone.

A number of Yankee uniform numbers have been retired since Mattingly’s all-time 23, mostly belonging to members of the Yankee teams that immediately succeeded Mattingly’s teams and won all those world championships. No matter whether The Hitman ever plays a role for the Yankees again, however, his name and number will never be forgotten by Yankee fans – nor by those who admire him for his unquestionable baseball skills and knowledge, his homespun sense of humor, and his enduring grit.

BallNine's fearless editor. Sports addict who's lived on both coasts (though loyal to her hometown New York City teams). Writer of many articles on education. Speaker of little bits of many languages.

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