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E.M. Swift
April 14, 1986
In only his third season, Don Mattingly invites comparison with Gehrig, DiMaggio and other Yankee stars of yore
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April 14, 1986

The Banger In The Bronx

In only his third season, Don Mattingly invites comparison with Gehrig, DiMaggio and other Yankee stars of yore

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Don Mattingly is prowling the kitchen like a caged cat, looking for something, anything, that remotely resembles a baseball bat. A jammed thumb has forced the American League's MVP to miss batting practice the past four days, and there is a bridled restlessness about him, like that of a heavy smoker in his third day of trying to kick the nic. Mattingly wants to play. He wants to play so badly that, jammed thumb or no, he was diving for ground balls on this, the seventh day of spring training, saying to himself, "Seventh game of the World Series...two out...two on..." like some 9-year-old with a new glove.

The handle of a vacuum cleaner finds its way into Mattingly's hands, and he checks his stance. It is not exactly textbook stuff, hunched over as he is with his bat an inch off his shoulder and his right leg open and his left foot pointing backward "almost like a duck's," as he describes it. But textbook or no, this stance is one of the keys to Mattingly's success.

"I never thought I'd drive in 145 runs," says the 24-year-old Mattingly, taking a practice cut in the direction of his 1-year-old son, Taylor, who looks up from his animal crackers and giggles. Taylor was last publicly seen on the pages of the New York Post wearing Jim McMahon-style sunglasses and a headband bearing the name STEINBRENNER. This was a gentle dig at the Yankee owner, who, after signing Mattingly to a $1,375 million, one-year contract the day before arbitration proceedings were to begin in February, is considerably more popular in the Mattingly household now than he was a year ago. "I thought I might hit 35 homers," Mattingly adds, "but I didn't think it'd be last year."

He sure didn't after reaching the midpoint of the 1985 campaign with only nine round-trippers in 337 at bats. Then it was instant Popeye. Unexpectedly, Mattingly, who before making the big leagues had never had more than 10 home runs in a season, slammed 26 homers in the second half of the year, batting .340 over the same span to finish the season at .324. He also scored 107 runs to go with his 145 ribbies and 35 homers. All this from a 19th-round draft choice, for heaven's sake, who was thought to be too slow ever to make it as a singles hitter and too punchless ever to make it at first base. Mattingly's 217 runs produced (runs scored plus runs batted in, less homers) were the most by a Yankee since—no, not Reg-gie, not even Mantle or Maris, but—Joe DiMaggio, who drove in 155 runs, scored 110 and hit 39 homers in 1948.

"He had as good a year as anyone I've ever played with—or against," says rookie Yankee manager Lou Piniella, who has been Mattingly's batting instructor the past three years. "You knew the numbers were going to be good, but he put them up so easily that until you took a step back at the end of the year, you didn't realize how good."

Numbers are just, well, numbers. But consider these comparisons with Mattingly's 1985 totals. He had 48 doubles, second on the alltime Yankee list to the 52 by Lou Gehrig in 1927. Mattingly also became the first American League player to lead the majors in doubles two years in a row since Tris Speaker did so from 1920 to '23. He rapped 211 hits, the most by a Yankee since Red Rolfe had 213 in 1939. His back-to-back 200-plus-hit seasons were the first by a Yank since DiMaggio did it in 1936 and '37.

Yankee co-captain Ron Guidry thinks it's no mere coincidence that Mattingly's stats invoke such hallowed names. "By the time his career is over," says Guidry, "he could be one of the best who ever played this game. He may not turn out to be quite what Lou Gehrig was, but he'll be closer than anybody else."

Here are some more Mattingly figures: He had 370 total bases, four more than Roger Maris had when he walloped 61 in '61. And with only 41 strikeouts in 652 at bats, Mattingly became the first major league player since Ted Williams (1957) to homer 30 times or more while fanning 50 times or less. "I used to think of Donnie as a line-drive hitter with home run power," says Piniella. "Now I'm starting to think of him as a home run hitter who can hit .300."

Can hit .300? In 1984, his first full season in the majors, Mattingly won the AL batting title at .343—the first Yank to win that crown since Mantle (1956). That .343 was the highest average by a Yankee lefty in almost 50 years, since Gehrig's .351 in 1937. In four years of minor league ball Mattingly's average was .332, and before that, at Reitz Memorial High in his hometown of Evansville, Ind., he hit .500 and .575 his last two years. "If he hit less than .300, I'd be ashamed, and he'd be sleeping in the living room," says his wife of six years, the former Kim Sexton. She's a lady who understands motivation because she's the daughter of Mattingly's high school football coach. "But those homers seem kind of weird to me," she admits. "I'm afraid they'll go away."

No one expected them. Not Piniella, not Mattingly, certainly not the Yankees, who were trying just about anyone at first base who could swing a bat and chew gum back in 1983, when Mattingly was first given a shot at the job over the likes of Bobby Murcer, John Mayberry, Butch Hobson, Roy Smalley, Ken Griffey and Steve Balboni. It was, like so many others in the Yankees organization, a temporary appointment. "I started the first game at home and had three tough plays at first that didn't go my way," Mattingly, a Gold Glover last year, recalls. None of the plays was scored an error, but Mattingly, who had gone 1 for 3, was promptly benched by manager Billy Martin. The day he and Kim moved into their 18th-floor apartment in Hackensack, N.J. he was returned to the minors. "It was kind of sad," Kim recalls.

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