If there is an area of baseball in which Don Mattingly is deficient, it is in dealing with his own success. He is a performer who is not yet comfortable taking a bow. He is a star who grows impatient talking about himself.
Don’t you know there is no “I” in Yankees? Mattingly knows. Just as he realizes that curtain-call business after home runs is as hollow an exercise as the wave. Let others concern themselves with putting on a show; Mattingly just wants to play ball.
There are few, if any, who do it better. In only his second full major league season, Mattingly has progressed from outstanding prospect to accomplished hitter to a major force in the game. It’s about time he took a good look in the mirror.
First things first. The pants, Don, the pants. It was Frank Robinson who set the standard for stars. High pantlegs, high stirrups. Only the Cincinnati Reds demurred, and that was by executive decree. But Mattingly insists on dressing down, on rolling his pants down to his ankles.
And don’t think the man isn’t conscious of such a mundane matter as uniform pants. When he stepped into the batting cage at Yankee Stadium Sunday, he became aware of the interest his presence inspired in the Angels. Reggie Jackson and Rod Carew, two of the more notable hitters of their generation, were paying close attention, and Jackson even was imitating his stance. Yet it was a lesser talent who alerted Mattingly.
“I knew George Hendrick was back there,” he said, “because he had those long pants on. I was imitating them.”
Much less distinctive, although no more flamboyant, is Mattingly’s salute to the home crowd after home runs. Just across the East River, where the Mets reside, a man named Gary Carter has transformed the contemporary ritual into something of an art form. Indeed, after homering in a Mets victory three weeks ago, Carter acknowledged practicing the proper method of holding his helmet aloft as he bounded back onto the field.
By contrast, Mattingly is reluctant to expose his head. Just a tip of the cap from the top step of the dugout was the extent of his concession to the crowd after his two-run homer in the sixth inning Sunday. He didn’t even do that much after his solo home run an inning later capped the scoring in the Yankees’ 5-3 victory. That marked the fourth time this season Mattingly has homered twice in a game, and indications are we are just beginning to see the vast potential of the hitter.
Yet he seemed almost embarrassed by the display, which raised his 1985 output to 25, two more than he hit all last season. “Home runs,” he said, “they seem to be my only hits lately.” Imagine the disappointment for a man who led the American League in batting a year ago with a .343 average.
It so happens 13 of Mattingly’s past 47 hits have been home runs. And he has had 16 homers in 43 games since the All-Star break. Yet he also has raised his average from .309 on July 17 to .327.
“He’s a special hitter,” noted Don Baylor, whose pinch-hit home run in the seventh broke a 3-3 tie and preceded Mattingly’s second blast. “He can spray the ball to left field and pull the ball into the seats. And he hits it hard every time.”
Indeed, Mattingly seemed prouder of a line drive that swift center fielder Gary Pettis ran down in deep left-center in the fourth inning than of the home runs. He, along with the rest of his teammates, had been shut down by Mike Witt at Anaheim, Calif., 10 days ago, and Witt held the Yankees hitless for the first three innings Sunday.
“I’ve caught myself trying to pull the ball too much lately,” Mattingly said. “And he was pitching me outside. I tried to crowd him a little, to get up on the plate.”
As a result, Mattingly drove that outside pitch hard to left-center in the fourth. Witt, remembering, tried to come inside in the sixth, and Mattingly hit a 1-and-0 pitch into the right-center field bleachers, cutting a 3-0 deficit to 3-2. His second homer, against Al Holland, marked his 108th run batted in of the season, the highest total in baseball. He had 110 all last season.
“What does that mean?” Mattingly said. “It means if I don’t drive in 130 runs next year, I’ll get booed at the Stadium.” He smiled. “Actually, I don’t want to sell myself short, to set a limit on things. I just want to play hard and let the limits set themselves.
“I struggled early in the season. I don’t know what can happen if I stay hot all year.”
It is a startling thought. Mattingly rushed into this season after undergoing knee surgery in February and missing much of spring training. He also was unsettled by very unsatisfactory contract negotiations with George Steinbrenner, for which Steinbrenner will pay now that Mattingly is eligible for arbitration. He didn’t hit his first home run until the Yankees’ 22nd game.
But look at him now. There isn’t another pure hitter with similar power in the game outside of George Brett. And Brett wasn’t a home-run threat at 24. Neither was Carl Yastrzemski. Wade Boggs may be the leading hitter in the league, but he hasn’t even reached double figures in home runs.
“When I first saw him in ’83,” Baylor recalled, “I didn’t think he was going to hit home runs the way he’s doing now. He was hitting to left-center, where it (the wall) was 430 feet. But he went to winter ball and made the adjustment. He made the adjustment in one year.”
If he is not the hitter he expected when he broke into organized baseball, he certainly hasn’t been disappointed. “You don’t know what to expect,” he said. “But last year did so much for me, confidence-wise. Last year changed my mind. This year didn’t surprise me. I felt I’d be at about 20 home runs. I thought that would be me throughout my career.”
Suddenly, however, 20 seems a trifling sum. This is a man who leads the league in doubles (39), in total bases (288) and in extra-base hits (67). This is a man around whom the Yankees now revolve.
Mattingly was tiring of the subject, which was himself. “Ah,” he said, squirming in his seat, “got to go.” His brother was standing nearby, holding Mattingly’s 5 1-2 month-old son. “Hey, buddy,” the player said, eagerly reaching out to Taylor Patrick and lifting the infant over his head, “they been treating you OK?”
And there in the clubhouse, the real star in the family took a bow.