FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Don Mattingly looked bemused when it was suggested that at 175 pounds, his current listing in the New York Yankees' media guide, he does not exactly fit the image of the prolific home-run hitter.
"I don't know where they got those numbers," he said. "Last year I weighed 185 and this season it could go up to 190."
But no quarrel with all the other numbers beside his name. They are all exact and uniformly superb, leading Yankee coach and former Baltimore Orioles' Manager Joe Altobelli to say: "Don Mattingly is the best baseball player I ever saw." This from a baseball man long exposed to the seductive charms of Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr.
The numbers Mattingly can offer in support of his fan club about his documented baseball skills are so overwhelming as to defy debate. But let us digress here to consider another number that has been commanding some attention--his $1.975 million salary with the Yankees after beating George Steinbrenner in an arbitration case.
When he went to arbitration, Mattingly would get either the $1.975 million his agent asked or the $1.75 million the Yankees offered. No in-betweens. The negotiations were long, "but I wasn't worried," Mattingly said. "It hurts so good to lose at that price."
It stands as progress for the fourth son of an Evansville, Ind., postman who says his wage when he joined the Yankees in 1983 "was $35,000 or whatever the minimum was that year."
It is no compliment to major-league scouts that Mattingly is, finally, a member of the Yankees. Club after club scoffed at the potential of the Indiana schoolboy who last season had the most hits and most total bases in the big leagues.
The Yankees ignored him until the 19th round of the high school draft.
"I couldn't run fast and they all thought I couldn't throw," he said, "but that wasn't my impression of myself. I thought I could play the outfield or third base."
After he batted .315 in his first Triple-A season at Columbus, the Yankees also thought he could hit, his 89 major-league homers in the last three seasons among the latest evidence.
And later he would prove that his fielding was not that atrocious, either. For the last three years he has led all American League first basemen in the slick-glove department with averages that never fell below .995.
Mattingly's .332 career batting average is the third best in Yankees history, topped only by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He is the first Yankee in 30 years to hit more than .350. No Yankee, ever, made as many hits in a single season as Mattingly's 238 last year. His 53 doubles were the most in the majors in 10 years.
As a left-handed hitter he is favored of course by the short right-field fence in Yankee Stadium? Nonsense. He hits more home runs on the road than at home. But Yankee Stadium helped his .352 batting average last season? Decide for yourself. At home he hit exactly .352, on the road exactly .352.
And this is a curious guy who hits far more homers in the big leagues than he did in the minors, where he never hit more than 10 in a single year. In his three seasons with the Yankees he has hit 23, 35 and 31.
The Yankees' manager helped him find the power, Mattingly said. As it happened, Lou Piniella was the Yankees hitting coach before he became manager "and we got Don to make more use of his body, to get it driving through the pitch, that's all. We wouldn't fool around otherwise with a man with such contact skills."
Mattingly guessed, he said, that he is a scientific hitter.
"I was being robbed of extra-base hits because they weren't going through the deep alleys," he said. "I was getting backspin on the ball and my hits were slowing up. So I squared around a little and started getting the topspin I wanted."
The main idea, he said, is to learn as you go along. "Now I know how to deal better with the inside pitch by shifting my weight around. I can't tell guys how to hit because what works for me may not work for them, but you get to know pitchers. Repetition, repetition, the more you see them the more you know what to expect from those fellows."
He said he'd read much of Ted Williams' book on hitting, "and I respect Mr. Williams. The idea is not to hit the pitcher's pitch but to wait until you get your pitch, and Mr. Williams told me I didn't walk enough." His walk total has zoomed.
"I think I'm a disciplined person, too," he said. Learned a lot about that from Quentin Merkle, the coach at Evansville Memorial High. A no-nonsense coach, Mr. Merkle was. "We knew his rules. Get a haircut before you report at the start of the season. If it's a 3 o'clock workout and you show up at 3:01, it was 'Come back next year.' "
Mattingly says he isn't annoyed at Steinbrenner's remarks that he must play up to his salary or he'd be booed. "All around the league they let you know when you don't get that important hit," he said. "We don't pay much attention to some of the things George says. Like me, George is a competitor."
And back in 1983 it wasn't that traumatic breaking in with the Yankees, nor was he awed by Yankee Stadium. The good thing, he said, "is that in New York they don't expect much from a rookie."
Later on that same rookie would generate higher expectations, like whether he would lead the American league again in hits, in fielding, in total bases and so many other matters important to a ball club.