Don Mattingly was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, first basemen of his generation. The 19th-round pick, who finished his career with nine Gold Gloves in 14 seasons, was arguably the top defensive first baseman of the modern era. Over a six-year span, Mattingly may well have been the best player in the entire American League. From 1984 to 1989 — and remember, this is the pre-steroid era — Mattingly averaged .327, with 27 homers and 114 RBIs. He led the majors with 684 RBIs and 257 doubles, and was third in overall hits (1,219) and in batting average, behind only Hall of Famers Wade Boggs and Kirby Puckett.
Speaking of Puckett, he and Mattingly share similar stat lines. While Mattingly had fewer hits (2153 to 2304) and runs (1007 to 1017), he had more homers (222 to 207) and doubles (442 to 414), in 200 fewer at-bats. Both players won a batting title. Mattingly won an MVP in 1985 (and was runner-up the next year, even though he hit .352). Puckett never did. Puckett was a World Series hero, though. Mattingly only played in a single post-season series in his final year in the majors — and only because of the newly instituted wild-card series (a dramatic loss to Seattle in 1995, in which Mattingly hit .417 and drove in six runs). Puckett finished his career on a high note, Mattingly less so. Both men are deserving Hall of Famers, but only one, Puckett, was a first-ballot entry.
This week “three or fewer” of the 16-person committee judging Hall of Fame entries for the “Modern Baseball Era Committee” cast votes for Mattingly, who could never convince even 30 percent of baseball writers to vote for him during his eligibility years. Dwight Evans, who played nearly twice as many games, and never hit over .300 (Mattingly did it seven times), never came close to 200 hits in a season (Mattingly led the league in hits twice, hitting 238 in 1986, a number that has only been eclipsed once since), and never won an MVP, garnered more votes from the committee.
Yankees antagonists like to argue that playing in New York adds an unearned luster to borderline Hall of Fame careers. It seems to me that evaluations of Mattingly’s career are unfairly skewed because he played for the Yankees. He was, through no fault of his own, perhaps the only Yankee great to have never have won, or even played in, a World Series. The poorly run teams of the mid to late 1980s never won a pennant. By 1990, the Yanks were the worst team in American League. Even so, the Mattingly-led Yankees finished with the best record in baseball during the 1980s. It’s true that injuries plagued the second half of Mattingly’s career, but it’s also true that by 1989 the first baseman was slotted in between players like Matt Nokes and Mel Hall in the batting order.
Mattingly also first became eligible for the Hall of Fame in the midst of the steroid era. In 2001, the first year of Mattingly’s eligibility, Barry Bonds hit 73 homers. Sammy Sosa, 64. Luis Gonzalez, a miraculous 57. Forty-one players hit over 30 homers and 13 hit over 40 during the 2001 season. In Mattingly’s MVP year, only one player hit 40 homers, and only 13 hit over 30. Surely those skewed numbers undermined perspective of Mattingly’s great career in a way from which he could never recover.
It’s a shame.