What's Wrong with Yankee Slugger Don Mattingly? George Only Knows, Because Nobody Else Does

updated 04/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The big news with the New York Yankees this season is that the "baseball people" are back. The "baseball people," as every Yankee fan knows, are those shadowy brain trusters employed by team owner George Steinbrenner for the express purpose of making all his mistakes for him—George being too big a man to make them for himself. The baseball people have taken a lot of abuse from George, who sighs when he reports on the misbegotten advice that they give him, and they would undoubtedly take a lot more from fans, if the fans really believed that they mattered. Only George seems convinced that they do; how else to explain his angry outburst last February when Don Mattingly, the Yanks' nonpareil first baseman, took him to arbitration and went home with a salary of $1.975 million (up $600,000 a season). Those pesky baseball people must have sent George this memo.

Boss:

It might break your heart, but we think you have to get rid of Don Mattingly. Maybe he is the best player in baseball—that's what 417 major leaguers said last year in a newspaper poll. And maybe, at 27, he still is getting better each year. But Boss, the kid just isn't up to your standards.

Take his numbers. Impressive, but they could be better. Since coming up in 1983, he's won a batting championship and a couple of Gold Gloves, been to the All-Star game three times, won the American League's Most Valuable Player Award in 1985, led the league in runs batted in, and struck fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers. But get this, Boss, he hasn't done as well as Babe Ruth in his first three years with the Yankees, so there's plenty of room for improvement.

Another problem we have with Mattingly: He's not really a naturally gifted athlete, and he would be the first to admit it. "I'd like to be able to run," says Mattingly, whose speed afoot all too closely resembles your own. "And it would be nice to have a perfect body like Dave Winfield." Instead he remains trapped in a relatively puny 5'11" 185-pound physical plant. So how, in the words of Yogi Berra, has Mattingly been able to "exceed our expectations and do even better?" The main reason may be his monomaniacal work habits. In the off-season, when most ballplayers are contentedly grazing on fairways, Mattingly hits baseballs 90 minutes a day, seven days a week. Once the season starts, it's virtually impossible to get him out of the batting cage. The same dedication to glove work has turned first base at Yankee Stadium into a sort of Bermuda Triangle for line drives and stinging ground balls that mysteriously vanish into his mitt.

Despite this obvious passion for the game, Boss, Mattingly has a bad attitude; he's a lousy loser. "Once he steps onto the field," says Yankee third baseman Mike Pagliarulo, "Donnie gets very nasty. Very aggressive." Mattingly doesn't deny it. "That's part of my success," he says. "I have no friends on the other team." Relief ace Dave Righetti remembers a moment last year when Mattingly's latent aggression reached a sort of epiphany. "We were playing the Orioles," says Righetti. "Eighth inning, we're down a couple of runs and Don Aase is pitching. He's throwing really hard, just blowing us away. He gets two strikes on Donnie, then throws a fastball neck high. Usually you can't catch up to that pitch. You just foul it back. But Donnie lets out this bloodcurdling karate-type scream and tomahawks the ball into the seats 425 feet away. We win the game. Amazing."

No argument, Boss, Mattingly Is amazing, but sometimes you just forget that he's there. Not like Reggie—you could never forget he was there, could you? And Billy? He was about as easy to forget as a booby-trapped car. No, off the field Mattingly just keeps his mouth shut and doesn't hit anyone. "I don't want to tell people what I can do," he says, "I want to show them." If that sounds a little small-town, well, Mattingly grew up in Evansville, Ind., and six years ago married Kim Sexton, daughter of his American Legion baseball coach. The two live now in Tenafly, N.J., where the greatest threat to their domestic tranquility is when Mattingly goes into a slump, which for him might mean going 1 for 4. "It drives me crazy when I don't hit," says Mattingly. Kim doesn't need to read the box scores to know when Don isn't ripping the ball. "He just sits there in a daze," she says. "And every once in a while I'll catch him swinging the bat in the upstairs bathroom." Once she said that if Don ever hit less than .300 she'd make him sleep on the couch. "It sounds awful," she says, "but what I really meant was that if Donnie weren't hitting, it would be unbearable."

Mattingly was a naïf in pinstripes when he first came to New York. "There wasn't much Yankee talk in Evansville," he says. "When I was growing up I thought that Babe Ruth was a cartoon character." Now he's learning. In fact he and Kim love New York. They love its theaters, its restaurants and especially its blessed anonymity. "I'm not very recognizable," Mattingly says, "and in New York fans are so used to seeing celebrities they just say 'Hi' and 'Bye.' " By contrast, when he and Kim go back to Evansville, "Donnie can't even go to the grocery store," she says. "He gets mobbed."

Not only does he like New York, Boss, he doesn't even seem to mind you. Remember when he took you to arbitration and won? And you said he was just in the game for the money? Mattingly didn't say anything. Suppose everybody ignored you like that? It wouldn't be much fun owning a ball club, would it? Maybe you ought to show him you're serious—send him to Seattle or someplace. Then he'd have to get to the Hall of Fame on his own, just him and his Gold Gloves and his .350 batting average. That would teach him a thing or two, wouldn't it, Boss?

Well, that's it for now. See you in September. Maybe.

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