Reporters huddled around Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly after he rapped out three hits in a 7-3 win over Detroit last week in New York. But they were looking over their shoulders for Dave Winfield, who had gone 5 for 5. As soon as he appeared, the covey surrounding Mattingly flew to Winfield.
"That's my game, not to be noticed," Mattingly said. "I'm not worried about the lights. I just want to keep doing my job and be consistent."
The unassuming 23-year-old from Evansville, Ind. will never claim to be the straw that stirs the drink. But with the Yankees 21 games out at week's end and the newest Bronx cheer being "Let's go Mets!" Mattingly has stirred the interest of the pinstripe faithful in his first full season. Through Sunday, Mattingly trailed only Winfield (.343 to .370) in the American League batting race. He ranked second in hits (97) and fifth in both doubles (19) and slugging percentage (.544). He also had 12 homers, a team-high 49 RBIs and a budding reputation as a defensive whiz.
That Mattingly, who's ambidextrous, is hitting well comes as no surprise: In the minors, where one teammate tagged him "Battingly," he was never below .314, and last year he batted .283 in 90 big league games. But the 12 home runs have surprised even him. The most he had ever hit in a previous season was 10.
"People from home keep, calling and saying, 'My god, what are you feeding him?' " says Kim, Don's wife. Says Yankee hitting coach Lou Piniella, "He's not a home-run hitter. He's a line-drive hitter with home-run power." Piniella says Mattingly has adjusted his batting mechanics so that he starts with more weight on his back leg and gets a better weight shift. He is also a year smarter and stronger. And hitting in front of Winfield and Don Baylor hasn't hurt, either.
"We haven't found the right way to pitch to him yet," Tiger catcher Lance Parrish says. "When we first saw him last year, he just tried to make contact. He sprayed the ball around. He now seems to be able to drive the ball more. When he's swinging the bat well, he reminds me of George Brett. He adjusts to whatever you throw him."
Mattingly is an oasis of modesty in a desert of high-priced egos, confident without being cocky. "What's the dirt on Mattingly?" a British journalist asked a sportswriter for the sensationalist New York Post last week. "There is none," the writer said. "He's just a nice quiet guy."
"That's confirmation then," the journalist said. "If the Post doesn't have any dirt on him, there isn't any."
Indeed, the most sensational thing about Mattingly is his batting. When he got into slumps in the minors he would study the hitting style of Rod Carew on television to correct his flaws. This season Carew paid Mattingly his biggest compliment when he told him, "Man, you can hit." Mattingly was so excited that after the game he called Kim to tell her about it.
On Mattingly's first day of spring training this year, manager Yogi Berra told him he was going to be the swingman, playing first, right and left and doing a little DHing. "Once you get me in that lineup," Mattingly told Berra, "you're going to have a hard time getting me out." Indeed, he is second in games played with 73. His base salary is $80,000, but barring injury he will easily attain $50,000 in bonuses for playing in at least 110 games.