One of the most popular players in franchise history and quite possibly the greatest Yankee never to have appeared in a World Series, Don Mattingly was baseball’s premier first baseman of the mid-1980s before a chronic back injury sapped much of his power at age 29.
Respected for his talent, professionalism and humility, “Donnie Baseball” was an outstanding performer on both sides of the ball during his 14 years in pinstripes, including an incredible six-year stretch that appeared to have Mattingly on track to reach the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Here are 10 moments that defined the career of the current Marlins manager, who turns 61 years old on Wednesday.
Mattingly became the Yankees’ full-time first baseman in 1984, a season that hosted a memorable race for the American League batting title against teammate Dave Winfield. With the Yankees far behind the eventual World Series champion Tigers in the division race, their final games of the schedule focused upon the showdown between Mattingly and Winfield.
No Yankee had won a batting title since Mickey Mantle’s Triple Crown in 1956, and no Yankees had ever finished 1-2. Mattingly trailed Winfield by .002 entering the season’s final day; Mattingly went 4-for-5 while Winfield was 1-for-4 in that last game, as Mattingly hit .343 to Winfield’s .340. The duo shook hands and came off the field to a standing ovation.
“I never thought it would be decided in the last at-bat,” said Mattingly, who led the AL with 207 hits and paced the Majors with 47 doubles. “Before the inning, they told me if I didn't get a hit and David got a hit, he'd win by .002 of a point or something like that.”
Mattingly turned in a banner season in 1985, edging the Royals’ George Brett to claim the AL Most Valuable Player Award. Rickey Henderson’s arrival as the game’s premier table-setter increased traffic on the basepaths, and Mattingly took advantage by driving in 145 runs -- the most by a left-handed batter since Ted Williams collected 159 RBIs in 1949.
Mattingly paced the Majors with 48 doubles, 370 total bases and 15 sacrifice flies, compiling a .324/.371/.567 slash line with 35 homers and 107 runs scored. He also enjoyed the second of six career All-Star selections, bringing home the Gold Glove and the first of three consecutive Silver Slugger Awards.
Good as gold
Mattingly won the first of his nine Gold Glove Awards in 1985, second-most among first basemen in Major League history, behind Keith Hernandez’s 11. Over his career, Mattingly compiled a remarkable .9959 fielding percentage, committing only 64 errors in 15,316 chances at first base.
He was so sure-handed that Mattingly occasionally played second base and third base, despite being a left-handed thrower. He played second during the resumption of the 1983 pine tar game, and with third baseman Mike Pagliarulo injured during a 1986 series against the Mariners, Mattingly started three games at third base -- even starting a double play.
“I think,” Tigers manager Sparky Anderson said in 1988, “he’s the single greatest player in our game.”
Mattingly’s 1986 was arguably better than the ’85 that produced his MVP. With a Major League-leading 238 hits and 53 doubles, Mattingly shattered a pair of single-season franchise records that had stood since the fabled 1927 Murderer’s Row lineup, when Earle Combs rapped 231 hits and Lou Gehrig belted 52 doubles.
Mattingly finished second to Red Sox ace Roger Clemens in the MVP voting, having posted a .352/.394/.573 slash line with 31 home runs and 113 RBIs. In addition to hits and doubles, Mattingly paced the Majors in plate appearances (742), slugging percentage, OPS (.967), OPS+ (161) and total bases (388).
Mattingly’s power stroke became national news in 1987, when he tied Dale Long’s 31-year-old record by homering in eight consecutive games from July 8-18. Mattingly began his march toward history with a two-homer game against the Twins on July 8, then added another two-homer game on July 16 at Texas.
On July 17, Mattingly equaled Long’s mark with a fourth-inning solo homer off the Rangers’ Jose Guzman. Texas held Mattingly in the park the next night, though he did notch two hits in four trips to the plate. The Mariners’ Ken Griffey Jr. tied the record in July 1993.
“I don’t know what happened with the home runs. I just got in a groove -- bing, bing, bing,” said Mattingly, who also set a since-matched Major League record that year with six grand slams in a season. “I’ve found a swing that gets the ball in the air. All of a sudden, without even trying, something has clicked.”
Principal owner George M. Steinbrenner announced that Mattingly had been named the Yankees’ team captain on March 1, 1991, making him the 14th captain in franchise history and the first since Ron Guidry and Willie Randolph served as co-captains from 1986-88.
Though Mattingly was experiencing back issues that sapped his power -- later revealed to be the result of a congenital defect -- Mattingly vowed that he would lead the Yankees by example for the duration of his captainship.
“Once it had a chance to sink in,” Mattingly said, “it’s one of the biggest thrills and biggest honors for me in baseball. I take it seriously.”
After the Yankees’ promising 1994 season was cut short by a players’ strike, Mattingly finally reached the playoffs in 1995 as part of the first team to win an AL Wild Card. Mattingly later said that the bright lights of October made him feel “like I was me again.”
Facing Seattle in what would be the only postseason series of his career, Mattingly went 10-for-24 (.417) with six RBIs across the five-game AL Division Series, including a go-ahead two-run homer off Andy Benes in Game 2 at Yankee Stadium. Mattingly also roped a tie-breaking two-run double in Game 5, which would be the final contest of his career.
“Everything about it was great,” Mattingly said, “except that we lost.”
Mattingly sat out the 1996 season, watching from home as the Yankees went on to win their first World Series since 1978. He rebuffed a midseason contract offer from the Orioles, then returned to Yankee Stadium on Aug. 31, 1997, when the club retired his uniform No. 23.
Mattingly is the only Yankee to have his uniform number retired without winning a World Series. His Monument Park plaque describes him as “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.”
After stints as the Yankees’ hitting coach (2003-06) and bench coach (2007), Mattingly was a finalist for the manager job that went to Joe Girardi. Mattingly then followed Joe Torre to Los Angeles, where he served for 2 1/2 seasons as the Dodgers’ hitting coach before being named manager for the 2011 season.
Amidst front office uncertainty, Mattingly endured a slow start in 2013, fueling media speculation that his job could be in jeopardy. The Dodgers rallied to win the National League West -- the first of three consecutive years that Mattingly led the Dodgers to the postseason, making him the first such manager in Brooklyn/Los Angeles history.
Manager of the Year
Mattingly endured four losing seasons as the Marlins’ manager before guiding his upstart group to a 31-29 record during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, securing a playoff berth with a Sept. 26 victory at Yankee Stadium -- and his stewardship earned Mattingly the NL Manager of the Year Award. In their first trip to the postseason since 2003, Miami bested the Cubs in the NL Wild Card Series before falling to the Braves in the NLDS.
“Hopefully, this is the very beginning of it,” Mattingly said. “We've got a lot of young guys coming. Our pitchers are young. We wanted to build a culture that's a winning environment, that guys like playing in, that was fun.”