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He's the Kind of Player Only a Steinbrenner Could Dislike

August 25, 1987|ROSS NEWHAN | Times Staff Writer

He is in his fourth full season with the New York Yankees, and his statistics are already the stuff of legends. Don Mattingly seems on the way to a niche in the Hall of Fame and a monument in center field at Yankee Stadium.

That is, if his annoyance with owner George Steinbrenner doesn't reach the monumental point where he would ask to be traded. Or decide to become a free agent after the 1989 season.

Mattingly, the humble Hoosier, seems to be having an increasingly difficult time maintaining his basically pacifist demeanor. He has suggested that he doesn't expect to end his career in New York and will probably have more to say about it when the 1987 race is over.

Now, as injuries and the calendar work against the Yankees in their battle to survive in the American League East, Mattingly seems reluctant to talk at all. He consented to a brief interview, but only if the writer avoided controversial questions.

Inevitably, however, the question of Steinbrenner and his influence on the first baseman's future came up.

Will he ask to be traded?

"At this time, I can't see it happening," Mattingly said. "But I can't predict the future. I don't know what my frame of mind will be down the line.

"I like New York. I don't really want to leave. I wouldn't have bought a home there if I knew I was going to leave. Sometimes it can get frustrating. Sometimes the owner can put the squeeze on you. I don't agree with everything that happens, but I've contributed to that situation, too.

"You've got to get it off your chest and then forget about it or else you'll go crazy."

Mattingly generally responds by driving the opposition crazy. Steinbrenner's meddling; the $1.975-milllion arbitration victory that the owner predicted would be like a monkey on the player's back; injuries to his wrist and back--nothing stops the succession of hits rattling from that coiled stance.

A 1986 New York Times poll of the 624 major league players resulted in Mattingly's being voted baseball's best player. Detroit Tiger Manager Sparky Anderson put it this way recently:

"Eric Davis is the most exciting player now, and Bo Jackson is the greatest athlete I've ever seen in baseball, though we don't know yet if he's a great baseball player. But Mattingly is head and shoulders the class of this game."

The class of the game? The best player? Does Mattingly think of himself in those terms?

"Not at all," he said. "Maybe if I did, I'd be better than I am. I mean, it's hard to say that any one player is better than another. You tell me that Andre Dawson is the best player, and I'll tell you that Jack Clark is. You tell me that George Bell is, and I'll tell you that Mike Schmidt is.

"In any given year, one guy can be the best. But the true test is over a number of years, and I feel like that's where my strength is. I want to be consistent. I want to play with injuries. I want to be the type person that the manager can count on both on and off the field. I'd rather be able to put together a lot of good years than be remembered for one or two awesome years.

"I mean, I don't consider myself a great player as much as a worker, an everyday player. I don't even know what the word star means except that I know you can establish a lot of magnitude by what you do off the field if you have a personality for it like Gary Carter does.

"I'm sure that if I went out and did all the commercials I could do, I'd be looked at in a different way, too, but you have to do what you're comfortable with. You have to be yourself. I'm not flashy. I'm not that type. I'm not comfortable going out and telling people what they should do and what they should buy.

"People put too much emphasis on the opinion of athletes anyway. For me, I'm comfortable playing baseball. I know I can do it well. I'm at home on the field. I know that if I prepare mentally every day I have the ability to beat the game, that the numbers will be there.

"No one can be 100% ready every day, but you don't catch a guy like Wade Boggs coming up short too often. He may lose a battle here and there, but he wins the war because he's ready."

Boggs adheres to a diet of chicken, and other superstitions. Mattingly adheres only to hard work. The batting cage is his laboratory.

The story is told of an off-season visit that he made to Yankee Stadium, where he was shown a season ticket brochure adorned by pictures of past and present Yankee stars. Mattingly noticed that his front leg was in an incorrect hitting position and asked that the picture be replaced. He is more of a perfectionist than a natural.

"If I am a natural, it's because I work hard at my hitting," he said. "I don't know any other way. The only real athletic gifts I feel I was blessed with are quick hands and good eyes. When I'm seeing the ball like I should, I'm seeing it early. I'm seeing it right out of the pitcher's hands, picking up the seams and all. I don't look for any particular pitch, only hard stuff. Then it's all reaction."

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