Thursday, July 20, 2017

Flashback, July 1987: Don Mattingly's Golden Summer

This week 30 years ago, Don Mattingly—having already won an American League Most Valuable Player Award—solidified his status as the best player in baseball. What got everyone’s attention was the major-league record he tied: eight consecutive games in which he hit a home run. Even when that streak ended, however, he set another record, in the American League, for most consecutive games with an extra-base hit (10). And, coming on the heels of that, was a record for first baseman that he tied: most put-outs in a game (22).

In this short period, the Yankee established himself as the gold standard for excellence and consistency with both bat and glove. He did so with a minimum of fuss amid an intense media market and judgmental fan base. At age 26, he seemed on a trajectory for Cooperstown.

Just earlier that month, however, the Yankee star first began to exhibit the symptoms of a body  starting to betray him. His offensive streak began after he emerged from the hospital, where he lay in traction for five days due to a lower-back injury.

Some time later, reports circulated that Mattingly had hurt himself on June 4 during a friendly locker-room wrestling match with teammate Bob Shirley. The first baseman insisted that the injury occurred while he was fielding groundballs before the game that day. Whatever manner he became aware of the problem, however, it all traced back to one cause: a congenital disk deformity that soon robbed him of his power, shortened his career and deprived him of a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Nobody could have foreseen all of this then. Even Mattingly’s doctors at the time didn’t grasp the severity or true nature of his back problem. It was simply two protruding disks, they thought: no surgery required, just a few weeks of rest, that’s all.

Further obscuring his underlying health issues was the vigor with which he bounced back. In his first 13 games back starting in late June, Mattingly hit .370 and knocked home 12 runs.

But the eight-game streak that began July 8 was something else again: 10 home runs (two of which were grand slams), 21 RBIs, two doubles, 11 runs scored, a .459 batting average, a 1.324 slugging average, and—especially astonishing for our free-swinging era—only two strikeouts.

Despite missing 22 games with his back injury, Mattingly finished the 1987 season with a .327 batting average, 30 home runs (including six grand slams--another major-league record, subsequently tied by Travis Hafner in 2006), 115 RBIs, and a .559 slugging percentage. Yet he only finished seventh that season in the AL voting for Most Valuable Player—partly because his excellence was taken for granted by now, but mostly because the Yankees only ended up fourth in the AL East that year.

That, unfortunately, was the story of nearly all of Mattingly’s 14-year career with the Bronx Bombers. That entire span coincided with the worst postseason drought of George Steinbrenner’s time as owner. 

In 1994, the team was ahead in the AL East when the Players’ Association went on strike, effectively ending the season. The following year, Mattingly’s last, the team made the playoffs as a wild-card entry, playing with an urgency, many teammates admitted, because they thought this might be their captain’s only chance at the postseason before retirement.

They were right. “Donnie Baseball” made the most of his opportunity in the five-game divisional series with a .417 batting average, four doubles, a home run, and six RBIs. But the Yankees lost that thriller of a series to the Seattle Mariners, and Mattingly had played what turned out to be his last game.

The final offensive totals of Mattingly’s career were noteworthy, but not, in the minds of the sportswriters who voted for the Hall of Fame, gold standard: a .307 batting average, 2,153 hits; 222 home runs; 442 doubles; 1,099 RBI; and 1,007 runs scored. 

As Alex Remington noted in a post for the “Big League Stew” blog seven years ago, those totals don’t even compare favorably with Mattingly contemporaries such as Chili Davis, Jack Clark and Don Baylor. Nine Gold Gloves should have cinched Mattingly’s case as a great all-around player, but in the infield, first base may be the position where defense is least valued.

Baseball is a game of might-have-beens, and few cases have been as poignant as Mattingly’s. But he ended his career as he played it, without rancor, arrogance or self-pity. 

If there were only a Cooperstown for professionalism, Mattingly would have been among the first group ever to be selected. As it is, he can take a quiet pride in how much he did accomplish in his career, with the golden summer of 1987 taking pride of place.

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