Last winter, Mattingly guaranteed that the Yankees would win a pennant in '88. But the season turned out to be the worst of his career—even if he did hit .311 with 18 homers, 37 doubles and 88 RBIs. He had a pulled muscle in his rib cage. He had a war of words with the Boss. "One of the reasons I decided to spend the whole winter here is that no matter where I went in New York—a Knicks game, out to dinner—I'd be asked the same questions about George," says Mattingly. "I just want to let it cool down and remain a Yankee."
There were also questions about a back injury that was diagnosed in June 1987 as a protruding disk. "When I was on the disabled list with the disk, the doctors thought it was serious," Mattingly says. "But later they told me that there's an abnormal space in my spine, so the protruding disk doesn't affect the nerve. And while it looks bad on X-rays, it's not that serious. It's something I have to live with."
A pain in the back is one thing. Steinbrenner is another. "When all those rumors surfaced late last season that George was going to get rid of me, people back home asked me about being traded to St. Louis or Cincinnati. That might be easier, less pressure. I like Toronto a lot. But I don't want to leave New York. Yeah, I'm a small-town Indiana person, but I love the excitement and pressure of playing in New York. When I was growing up, I was a Reds fan. I didn't know much about the Yankee uniform and what Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio and Mantle had done. Now I do, and I'd like to play my whole career there.
"When I realize what Gehrig did and think that no matter what I do the rest of my career, that I'll never approach him, I find that neat. When I signed my [three-year, $6.7 million] contract before last season, I didn't ask for a no-trade clause because I'd always figured that if they didn't want me, I didn't want to be there. I didn't think I'd be traded so soon, but I guess—for a while there, at least—I was gone."
The Steinbrenner Wars began on Aug. 21, after a loss to Seattle. All the anger and frustration came pouring out of Mattingly. "I never wanted to let it get to me, but it had been building up for three years," he says. "It wasn't just 1988, far from it. For years, I'd let George take his little shots." In '85, for instance, the Boss refused to let Mattingly's arrest in Kansas City for urinating outside a restaurant be forgotten (although the charges were dropped). That same year Mattingly said the Yankees could use the mental rest of an off day, and Steinbrenner responded by saying Mattingly should get a "real job" as a taxi driver or steelworker and find out what life and hard work are all about. In 1987, when Mattingly won a record $1,975 million arbitration award, Steinbrenner said, "The monkey is clearly on his back. He has to deliver a championship like Reggie Jackson did. [Mattingly's] like all the rest of 'em now. He can't play little Jack Armstrong of Evansville, Indiana, anymore." Finally, last year, Steinbrenner called Mattingly "the most unproductive .300 hitter in baseball."
After that defeat by the Mariners, Mattingly said, "They think money is respect.... They don't want us to win games.... We have a lot of unhappy players.... It's hard to come to the ballpark. It's not fun to play here. The game should be fun."
A week later, Blue Jay general manager Pat Gillick told Toronto reporters that Mattingly was on the trading block. At the time, Steinbrenner denied it, but at the same time he was pressing Krivacs, Mattingly's agent, for an apology. Mattingly couldn't apologize. Among other things, Kim had told him not to come home if he did.
"After I let out things that had built up inside me, I felt great the rest of the season," Mattingly says. "I was like a new kid. I didn't want trouble with Mr. Steinbrenner. You know, I really do like him and respect him, and I know that he's helped my career by challenging and motivating me. Despite what he says sometimes, I believe he likes and respects me. But that whole thing wasn't about money. I know I had a bad year. I got into a rut early. I swung at too many bad pitches. It was the most inconsistent performance of my life. He can criticize my ability or my production or my numbers. But don't question my intensity, my effort, my integrity. Two million dollars is a lot of money, but two million dollars isn't respect or integrity."
On the final day of the season, in Detroit, several players came up and wished Mattingly well. "I felt like I'd died, or I was retiring," he says. Then, when he went back to close his New Jersey house, clubhouse man Nick Priore hugged him and gave him a kiss. "I'm told that's the Italian kiss of death," says Mattingly. "So I cleared out my locker."
Mattingly was told during the World Series by sources outside the Yankees that Steinbrenner had made a deal with the Giants that would have sent Mattingly and pitcher Rick Rhoden to San Francisco for first baseman Will Clark and pitchers Atlee Hammaker and Craig Lefferts. But the Giants had backed off trading the two lefthanded pitchers when they learned that another San Francisco southpaw, Dave Dravecky, had a tumor on his pitching arm.