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Hall or not, Mattingly was epitome of game

Fan favorite getting another crack at Cooperstown via Modern Era ballot
MLB.com @JPosnanski

Indiana was so cool in the 1980s. The movie "Hoosiers" came out. Bob Knight's Indiana basketball team won a couple of national championships, and John Feinstein's classic book about Knight, "Season on the Brink," became the best-selling sports book of all time. Larry Bird was the coolest guy going; he inspired countless people (including yours truly) to make a pilgrimage to French Lick, Ind., to see what kind of town could have possibly inspired such a force of nature.

And not to be lost: The 1980s featured Donald Arthur Mattingly, the pride of Evansville, Ind.

Indiana was so cool in the 1980s. The movie "Hoosiers" came out. Bob Knight's Indiana basketball team won a couple of national championships, and John Feinstein's classic book about Knight, "Season on the Brink," became the best-selling sports book of all time. Larry Bird was the coolest guy going; he inspired countless people (including yours truly) to make a pilgrimage to French Lick, Ind., to see what kind of town could have possibly inspired such a force of nature.

And not to be lost: The 1980s featured Donald Arthur Mattingly, the pride of Evansville, Ind.

Mattingly, Morris and Trammell highlight Modern Era ballot

Everything about Mattingly was cool -- from the crouch in his batting stance to his perfect swing to the near-flawless way he played first base to the dirt that inevitably covered his jersey to the eye black painted under his eyes to the mustache that represented just a bit of his independence. We called him Donnie Baseball. No other nickname seemed big enough.

Donnie Baseball had a bittersweet career. For six or so seasons, from 1984-89, Mattingly was pretty widely considered to be the best player in baseball. In retrospect, the best player from that time was probably the underrated Wade Boggs or the mercurial Rickey Henderson, but Mattingly's greatness was very real. In those six seasons, he hit .327/.372/.530 and averaged 43 doubles, 27 homers, 97 runs and 114 RBIs per year. He won an American League MVP Award, finished second in the voting once, won five AL Gold Glove Awards and made the All-Star team each year.

Video: CAL@NYY: Mattingly's great catch, putout

"He's the best in the league," Carlton Fisk told Sports Illustrated.

"If he made one dollar a year or two million a year, he'd have the same intensity," Don Baylor said.

"Baseball's still a game," Mattingly said. "I don't want it to be work. I want it to be play."

Mattingly was just so good day after day after day. He was not a power hitter -- the Yankees were actually worried that he would never hit home runs -- and yet he once homered in eight consecutive games. He almost never struck out -- Mattingly finished his career with just 444 strikeouts. For some modern context, he fanned in just 5.8 percent of his career plate appearances. The lowest rate posted by a 2017 batting title qualifier was 9.4 percent (Joe Panik).

He won a batting title in his first full season and led the league in doubles three consecutive seasons. He was not an especially graceful athlete, and yet nobody made fewer errors. That is literally true. Mattingly finished his career with the highest fielding percentage (.9956) in Major League history for any position.

Mattingly happened to come along just at the time when the New York Yankees went into hibernation. He was called up for a cup of coffee in 1982, one year after the Yankees reached the World Series for the 33rd time in 60 years. Getting to the World Series was considered a Yankees birthright. But Mattingly's Yankees couldn't quite make it work. Some years, they were very good and just got beat out by a better team. Other years, they were a bloated mess of over overpaid veterans. Every year, they were disoriented and at war.

Video: BOS@NYY: Mattingly hits record-setting grand slam

This was because Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was at his most volatile; he seemed to fire a manager every other day. In all, Mattingly played for nine managers in his 14 years, and that doesn't even include the fun fact that he played for Billy Martin three times.

Mattingly had his feuds with Steinbrenner too. But none of it ever seemed to affect Mattingly's impeccable timing as a hitter or his daily insistence of perfection in everything he did.

And then Mattingly's back went out.

The story is that simple. In 1990, at the age of 29, Mattingly's back problems flared and he was never again the same player. He lost his power. His average plummeted. Mattingly still went out there and played with the same intensity, but he hit a light .286 for the rest of his career. There were times you could see a bit of the old Mattingly. In 1992, he cracked out 40 more doubles. In 1993, he hit 17 home runs. In 1994, he hit .304. He kept winning AL Gold Glove Awards. But it wasn't the same, he wasn't the same and nobody understood this better than Mattingly himself.

Mattingly's Yankees finally made the postseason in 1995, and he took full advantage of the moment, hitting .417 with five extra-base hits in a five-game AL Division Series against Seattle. But the Yankees lost the series, and Mattingly could no longer play with his back problems. He retired at age 34. The Yankees won the World Series the next year and four times between 1996-2000.

Bittersweet career.

Video: 1995 ALDS, Gm 2: Mattingly homers in the postseason

Mattingly's Hall of Fame case is straightforward enough: Is six years of greatness enough to make a player a Hall of Famer? The answer was yes for Sandy Koufax, but no for Dave Parker. Mattingly's career was taken from him by a bad back. Many people have pointed out that Kirby Puckett's career was cut short by an injury, and he was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

The career numbers are fairly similar.

Puckett: .318/.360/.477, 2,304 hits, 414 doubles, 57 triples, 207 homers, 1,085 RBIs, 1,071 runs, 6 AL Gold Glove Award.

Mattingly: .307/.358/.471, 2,153 hits, 442 doubles, 20 triples, 222 homers, 1,099 RBIs, 1,007 runs, 9 AL Gold Glove Awards.

But it's not a complete comparison. Puckett played center field, a more important and demanding position. And Puckett was a good baserunner while Mattingly was famously slow.

Video: NYY@TOR: Mattingly finishes season on a high note

The Baseball Writers' Association of America, after giving Mattingly a fairly impressive 28.1 percent of the vote his first season, gradually moved away from him in the belief that his peak was not quite long enough. It's unlikely that he will make much of an impact on the Modern Era Committee Hall of Fame ballot for the same reason. That should not in any way diminish just how good Mattingly was at his best or the impact that he had on baseball fans across the country. Donnie Baseball was the one Yankee that even Yankees haters loved.

Joe Posnanski is a columnist for MLB.com.

New York Yankees, Miami Marlins