Pinstriped Mattingly among near greats
Late-career injuries may ultimately hurt Hall of Fame chances
NEW YORK -- For 14 seasons, Don Mattingly was the face of the New York Yankees. One of the most popular players in franchise history, his ovations have ranked among the loudest at the annual Old-Timers' Day festivities in the Bronx.
A sweet-swinging first baseman from Evansville, Ind., who rose to become team captain, Mattingly flourished brightly in the 1980s, but was ultimately hindered by back injuries, curtailing what may have been a Hall of Fame-caliber career.
Mattingly was among the game's premier offensive players from 1984-89, but the trouble for him -- when it comes to his case for Cooperstown -- is that his career spanned from 1982-95, leaving voters to consider more than his amazing six-year stretch.
"The Hall of Fame would be a great honor, but I don't live my life based on whether or not that will ever happen," Mattingly once said. "So in the grand scheme of things, it's not that important."
Heading into his second season coaching the Los Angeles Dodgers after following manager Joe Torre to the West Coast, Mattingly is in his ninth year on the Baseball Writers' Association of America Hall of Fame ballot. He received 86 votes -- 15.8 percent -- in 2008, a slight boost from the 54 votes (9.9 percent) he tallied in '07.
Mattingly's highest vote total percentage was 28 percent in 2001, his first year on the ballot, and the nine-time Gold Glove Award winner isn't holding out hope for a miraculous turnaround.
"I don't think I'm a Hall of Famer," Mattingly told Newsday last year. "I don't think I have the numbers. Part of it is longevity, and I wasn't able to do that and do the things that I did early in my career."
A candidate must get 75 percent of the vote to gain election, with former Red Sox slugger Jim Rice (72.2 percent), former Expos and Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson (65.9 percent) and former Twins ace Bert Blyleven (61.9 percent) standing as the top three returning vote-getters.
Rickey Henderson, whose career spanned 25 years and nine teams, headlines the newcomers to the 2009 Hall of Fame ballot. Henderson, who has never announced his retirement, last played for the Dodgers in '03. The 1990 American League Most Valuable Player is the all-time leader in runs scored (2,295) and stolen bases (1,406) and is second in walks (2,190).
Live coverage of the Hall of Fame's announcement on Monday, Jan. 12, can be seen on MLB.com.
During a six-year run beginning in 1984, Mattingly averaged 26 home runs, 114 RBIs and a .327 average, representing the Yankees on the AL All-Star team in each of those seasons.
No player during that stretch had more RBIs than Mattingly's 684, while only Hall of Famer Wade Boggs (1,269) had more hits than Mattingly's 1,219.
"Donnie Baseball" also accomplished an incredible feat in 1987, setting or tying five Major League records:
He hit six grand slams to set a new single-season mark (tied by Travis Hafner in 2006), despite having never hit one prior to that season.
From July 8-18, Mattingly went deep in eight consecutive games, tying Dale Long's 1956 record (later tied by Ken Griffey Jr. in 1993).
Mattingly's 10 homers during that streak were a big league record for most in an eight-game stretch.
Mattingly recorded extra-base hits in 10 consecutive games, breaking Babe Ruth's 1921 record.
On July 20, the night Mattingly's extra-base-hit streak ended, he tied the Major League record by recording 22 putouts at first base.
Although Mattingly appeared to be on the fast track to the Hall of Fame, he was slowed by back injuries over the next six years.
"Mattingly was a great player, there is no question about that," said one Hall of Fame voter. "But when you stack his career up against those guys in the Hall, he just doesn't make the grade."
Mattingly won the AL MVP Award in 1985, batting .324 with 35 homers and 145 RBIs, also finishing in the top five in the MVP voting in 1984 and '86. Mattingly, who won the AL batting title in 1984 (.343), also won nine Gold Glove Awards at first base in 10 years.
But from 1990-95, Mattingly averaged fewer than 10 home runs and 64 RBIs per season, topping the .300 mark just once, in the strike-shortened 1994 season.
"After the first half of Mattingly's career, I would have said he was a lock for Cooperstown," said another voter. "It's too bad he had as many physical problems as he did, because he could have been one of the all-time greats."
While voters may not feel that Mattingly's career matches up against those who have been inducted into the Hall, Donnie Baseball's supporters raise the comparison to the Twins' Kirby Puckett, a first-ballot inductee in 2001.
Mattingly's career totals are similar to those of Puckett, whose career was cut short after the 1995 season due to irreversible retina damage in his right eye. Mattingly retired with 2,153 hits to Puckett's 2,304, 442 doubles to Puckett's 414, 222 homers to Puckett's 207 and 1,099 RBIs to Puckett's 1,085.
Mattingly posted three more 100-RBI seasons than Puckett, two more 30-homer seasons, won one more MVP Award and the same number of batting titles.
Puckett's advantage comes in team hardware, as he played an integral part in the Twins' two World Series titles in 1987 and '91. Mattingly, on the other hand, appeared in the postseason just once, losing in the AL Division Series in his final season, 1995.
Mattingly's No. 23 was retired by the Yankees in 1997, and a plaque was posted in Monument Park to honor his career.
"A humble man of grace and dignity," reads the plaque. "A captain who led by example. Proud of the pinstripes tradition and dedicated to the pursuit of excellence. A Yankee forever."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.