Could it be true? Could the most potent and powerful curse in all of major league history belong to a man beloved by New York Yankees fans everywhere? The greatest Yankee to never win a World Series, may just be doomed to never get that ring.
Donnie Baseball. The Hit Man. 1985 AL MVP. Don Mattingly.Donald Arthur Mattingly, out of Reitz Memorial High School in Evansville, Indiana, was drafted as the 25th pick in the 19th round of the 1979 amateur draft, by the New York Yankees. For those of you keep tracking at home, that’s 493rd overall, which is to say, a long shot to ever make The Show. However, a little over three years later, the man who would be best known as “Donnie Baseball”, would make his major league debut with the parent club that drafted him. As of September 8, 1982, Don Mattingly had made the big leagues.
The Yankees were in the World Series just the year before, losing the series to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In their third meeting in five years, the Dodgers would take home the championship in six games, after dropping the first two games to New York. This was the eleventh (and still the last) time these two teams had met in the WS, including back to back titles for the Yankees in 1977 and ’78 (which as luck would have it, were also the first two years of my life). The stage seemed set for the Yankees to enter yet another of their seemingly predestined runs of postseason glory … but that was not to be.
His late season call-up in 1982 led to a 91 game/305 PA season in 1983, batting .283 while being used as a utility player primarily at first (where established star Ken Griffey played), which was enough exceed the rookie limits, and earn a full-time gig in the Bronx in 1984, where he would be a gold-glove winning staple at first base for the Yankees until his retirement after the 1995 season.
In his 1984 season he exploded onto the major league scene batting a league leading .343, and led the league in hits (207) and doubles (44) while pounding 23 long balls and driving in 110. The Yankees, however, only finished third in the AL East. The next year was more of the same, with The Hit Man hitting .324, while leading the league in both doubles (48) and RBI’s (145), while being named to his second All-Star team, winning his first gold glove, first Silver Slugger, and taking home his one and only MVP award. The Yankees improved to 97-64, and a second place finish in the AL East, coming up two games shy of the division winning Toronto Blue Jays in an era that only had two divisions per league, no wild card, and no division series. No October for the Yanks once again.
It would be more of the same from Mattingly over the years, and the Yankees went downhill from there including 5 consecutive losing seasons (they only have 21 all-time), from 1988 – 1992. In 1994, the Yankees finally seemed primed for a playoff run, which would have been Mattingly’s first, but the players strike ended the season short, with a 70-43 record, second best in all of baseball to the Montreal Expos mark of 74-40. It would be only the second time in MLB history that there would be no World Series, and for the first time since 1904, nobody would be crowned champion, and the postseason would elude Donnie Baseball yet again.
In his final season as a player in 1995, Don Mattingly finally got a taste of October baseball. With the recently added division series being added to the playoffs, the Bombers squeaked into the ALDS after finishing second in the division to the Boston Red Sox and squared off against the young and upcoming star whose father Mattingly had played with 12 years prior, Ken Griffey, and the Seattle Mariners.
In a playoff series best remembered for Griffey’s slide into home for the winning run in the bottom of the 11th, and likely saving baseball in Seattle, Mattingly would bat .417 with 4 2B’s, a HR and 6 RBI’s. The Yankees had led the best-of-5 series 2-0, taking both games in The Bronx, including a 15 inning thriller in Game 2, before dropping three in a row on the road in The Kingdome. Don Mattingly’s hopes of ever wearing a World Series ring would end watching “The Kid” (who also never won a World Series) take that dream away with a slide into home plate. It was over. The 6-time All-Star, 9-time Gold Glove winner, and 1985 AL MVP, who amassed 2153 career hits, with 222 home runs, and a career .307 batting average, would never play in the playoffs again. he would never trot out to first base in the World Series, and he would never raise the Commissioner’s Trophy above his head in triumph. He would, in fact, never play Major League Baseball again.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Yankees would go on to win their first championship in 17 years in 1996, ending their longest drought since winning their first title in 1921. As if that weren’t enough, long time Boston batting rival, Wade Boggs, who joined the Yankees in 1993, would win a championship in the front of the home crowd in Yankee Stadium. Wade Boggs, who had a solid season batting .311 over 132 games, was simply in the right place at the right time, and the fan-favorite Don Mattingly, simply never was. Roger Clemens taking home two rings while wearing pinstripes in 1999 and 2000, was just more salt in the wound.
Mattingly would return to baseball in 2004, as a hitting coach with the same team with whom he had spent his entire career. After another solid season that had become all too routine, the Yankees made history. With Mattingly in his first season back in the clubhouse, the Yanks would have a monumental collapse in the ALCS, losing a 3 games to none lead to the Red Sox, and fall in seven; The first and [to date] the only team to lose a seven-game series when leading 3-0. The Red Sox would go on to win their first championship in 86 years.
Bad luck? Perhaps.
He would remain hitting coach until 2006, when he moved into the position of Yankees bench coach in 2007. The Yankees would win another World Series only two years later, in 2009.
Cursed? I think so.
He would go on to manage the Dodgers from 2011-2015, leading the highest paid team in baseball history to a 446-363 record over 5 seasons, and a less than enviable 8-11 postseason record. He is currently the manager of the Miami Marlins.
Greater players than Mattingly have failed to reach the pinnacle of baseball success. Ted Williams and Ernie Banks immediately come to mind. The difference is that their teams were “cursed”. The “Curse of the Billy Goat”, placed on the Cubs in their last World Series appearance in 1945 (last won in 1908), allegedly by owner Billy Sianis for denial of entry to his goat, and the far more infamous “Curse of the Bambino”, which the Red Sox inadvertently placed on themselves by selling babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919.
“But the Curse of the Bambino was broken”, you say. Indeed it was. For a curse can only be broken by a more powerful curse, and in this one particular case, the Great Bambino was no match for Donnie Baseball. Cubs fans should pray for his return to the American League. It seems Don Mattingly has won something after all.
~ Jason Greco, @thatbaseballer1