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Mike Downey

What Did Baseball Ever Do to Deserve a Guy Like This?

July 22, 1987|Mike Downey

We spend so much time reading--and, sorry to say, writing--about ballplayers who do cocaine, drive drunk, smuggle pills, abuse women, want their contracts renegotiated, refuse to report, feud with their bosses, feud with their teammates and feud with the press that we can only sit back with an appreciative sigh and wonder:

What did we ever do to deserve Don Mattingly?

Imagine, a New York superstar who has never committed a felony, never overslept, never called himself any sort of straw, and, to our recollection, never called George Steinbrenner by any name other than "George." What an upset.

How splendid, then, that someone such as this enjoys the success that Mattingly enjoys. When he socks 10 home runs in eight games, good for him. More power to him. When he makes 22 putouts in one night, yeah, Mattingly. Good things come to those who play first base and wait. Mattingly might not be able to hold out forever. Someday, he is apt to turn into one of those ogres of ego who believes that nothing he does is wrong, or that anything he does off the field is strictly his own business.

New Yorkers would forgive him for it, of course. New Yorkers forgive anyone who steps into a batter's box wearing one of their uniforms. They have a reputation for being America's meanest fans, but quite the opposite is true. Ask Keith Hernandez or Dwight Gooden how nasty their fans were when they were rewarded with standing ovations for giving their coke spoons a rest.

Mattingly made a few people uneasy when he took the Yankees to arbitration and demanded a contract worth close to $2 million a year. He clearly was worth a lot of money--in a sport where Julio Cruz can become as wealthy as Daddy Warbucks, Mattingly probably should have asked for the Chrysler Building--but anytime a celebrity pulls down that sort of paycheck, great things are expected of him, and he had better deliver.

How, skeptics wondered, could Mattingly improve upon, or even keep pace with, his feats of the previous three seasons. His hit totals had been 207, 211 and 238. His homer totals: 23, 35 and 31. His batting averages: .343, .324 and .352. His RBI totals: 110, 145 and 113. Talk about consistent. His fielding percentages were .995, .995 and .995.

There was enough pressure on Mattingly to begin with, and even more when General Steinbrenner decreed that for that kind of money, Mattingly had better come through. Reggie Jackson was a winner, said Steinbrenner, who had considerably different things to say about Jackson when Reggie wanted out. If Mattingly wants to be paid like Jackson, he had better play like Jackson.

Well, in case no one has heard, here are a couple of bulletins about Reggie Jackson. The best batting average of his life was .300. His lifetime average was .263, which, once this season is over, will be marked down like a discount suit. Jackson's best RBI year was 118, and he did that 18 years ago. Forgive some of us if we are slow to worship at the altar of the almighty Reggie.

Mattingly has miles to go, of course. As recently as 1983, he was playing baseball in Columbus, Ohio. The next spring, he wasn't even assured of a full-time job. Steinbrenner and his cavalcade of managers had no idea what to do with Mattingly, or where to put him, in left field, at first base, in the DH spot, or where.

In retrospect, he probably could have solved the shortstop problems the Yankees have been having. You think not? In 1983, during the 91 games Mattingly managed to stay out of Columbus, he even played a little second base for the Yankees, and last season he even showed what he could do at third. Don Mattingly doesn't let a little thing like being left-handed keep him from being an all-around ballplayer.

The amazing thing about him is the power. Here is a guy who signed a professional contract in 1979, and for the next five seasons never once had a homer total in double figures. Now, as of his recent record-breaking binge, Mattingly has hit 111 dingers in the majors, and just as a point of reference, Mike Marshall, a slugger from the word go, just connected for his 100th the other night. Mattingly is only a few behind Kent Hrbek, Leon Durham and Darryl Strawberry, and is a mere 25 years old.

Being humble isn't easy when one is young and the object of great adulation. Even unconsciously, a gifted individual can come off as a braggart, as Wade Boggs did recently when he said he could belt 35 or 40 homers if he chose to, but his batting average would plummet to .310. Boggs didn't mean anything by it, and one would be hard-pressed to disagree with anything he said.

Mattingly is conscious of what he has accomplished, but never crows about it. He is hardly Dale Murphy bashful or Gary Carter happy, but neither is he George Bell grumpy or Dave Kingman dopey. And, in something of an upset in these modern times, he has shown no sign of being sneezy.

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