With chance at Hall, Mattingly merits the call

December 1st, 2022

The 16 members of the Contemporary Baseball Era Committee will meet this Sunday in San Diego to consider the Hall of Fame candidacies of players, some of them legendary players, who were not elected when they were on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballots.
The candidates this year, in alphabetical order, are Albert Belle, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Dale Murphy, Rafael Palmeiro and Curt Schilling. All of their cases for and against induction have been litigated in the past, most passionately about Bonds and Clemens. They will be litigated again this weekend by the former players, executives, historians and media members on the committee.
This isn’t about the rest of them. This is about Donald Arthur Mattingly, out of Evansville, Ind., who belongs in Cooperstown.
I asked him the other day if he allows himself to dream about possibly getting the 12 votes he needs in San Diego. This was his answer:
“Absolutely, quietly.”
And this is what his last manager in baseball, Buck Showalter, said about Mattingly’s candidacy on Wednesday:
“Donnie is everything the Hall of Fame is supposed to be about. Anybody who ever watched him play knows he’d be there already if his back hadn’t given out on him.”

It is a part of Mattingly’s own history and the history of his time in baseball, between the mid-’80s into the mid-’90s, that his career was ultimately altered by injury. He finally retired after his one postseason appearance in 1995, a memorable five-game American League Division Series against the Mariners. Mattingly went up against three future Hall of Famers in that series -- Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez -- and was every bit the Hall of Famer the rest of them were the last time he would ever grace a ballfield.

Mattingly had 10 hits in that series, a .417 batting average, one home run, six RBIs and a 1.148 OPS. Then he told Showalter on the flight back to New York from Seattle that he was retiring, and walked away at the age of 34. By then, he had been an MVP (1985), a batting champion (1984) and, in a 1986 poll conducted in every big league clubhouse by the New York Times, had been voted the best player in the sport. There are a busload of players already in Cooperstown who never could have won an election like that.

No one would suggest that Mattingly was as dominant a force, both offensively and as one of the best defensive first basemen ever (“He made all the plays, he had imagination, and was the most fearless thrower of the baseball from that position as anyone who ever played it,” Showalter said), as Sandy Koufax had been as a pitcher. But Koufax is in the Hall of Fame because of six great seasons for the Dodgers. In the last four extraordinary seasons, he posted 97 wins against 27 losses, three of his four no-hitters and a perfect game. He also had 89 complete games between ’63 and ’66, and struck out nearly 400 batters in ‘65.

This was all before injury, arthritis in his pitching elbow, shortened his career and caused his retirement at age 30. Koufax ended up with 165 victories and made it to Cooperstown anyway, which means he wasn’t punished by his own legendary career being cut short.

Nor should Mattingly be.

Even with his bad back, he still retired with a lifetime average of .307. Starting in 1984, he hit over .300 for six straight seasons, knocked in more than 100 runs in five of those years and had 238 hits in 1986. He played all 162 games for the Yankees in ‘86, with 677 official at-bats. When he had the chance to beat out teammate Dave Winfield for the batting title in 1984, Mattingly came from two percentage points behind on the last day of the season and got four hits in five at-bats.

In 1986, then-manager Lou Piniella was even forced to play the left-handed-throwing Mattingly at third base in a series in Seattle against the Mariners.

“You know the only thing he asked Lou?” Showalter said. “‘Left-handed or right-handed?’ In addition to everything else, Donnie could throw right-handed almost as well as he could throw left-handed.”

I asked the guy Yankee fans knew as Donnie Baseball if he’d really said that to Piniella.

“Yep,” he said. “When Lou asked me before the game if I could play it.”

Of course he could. Mattingly could do just about everything when he was healthy, across a career when he was the only truly great Yankee to never play in a World Series, when he honored the team and its history and the uniform, conducted himself with grace, never complained even when his back did not allow him to hit the way he had when he was young and had first hit New York.

Mattingly is back at the plate this weekend. He belongs in Cooperstown. Absolutely. Just not quietly, at least not here.