25 Most Surprising Seasons In Yankees History: 1984 Don Mattingly

Feb 2, 2023 - 4:00 PM
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I was nine-years-old in the summer of 1984, “The Summer of Mattingly and Winfield.” Like most nine-year-olds, I was just starting to understand the game with the Yankees becoming a real focus. The “famous” players like Winfield, Randolph, Guidry, and Righetti were the ones we talked about and tried to emulate in the neighborhood games. You see, kids don’t study prospect sheets and we certainly didn’t back then. So, I was the kid with the Dave Winfield T-shirt with number 31 on my back.

There was a moment that summer that I clearly remember all of these years later. I was at home and my grandfather was leaving after a visit. I had my Dave Winfield T-shirt on. My grandfather said, “he’s good, but you should watch the other kid hit.”

The “other kid” was Don Mattingly, the 23-year-old first baseman.

I vaguely knew who he was then. He did play 91 games the year before, but he was used in a reserve role; he wasn’t a star and he certainly didn’t look like he could hit home runs. To a nine-year-old, rookies who didn’t hit dingers tend to be forgotten.

The next day, I watched the game and paid particularly close attention to Mattingly. In my mind, I want to say he had three hits that game and then another three the next day. But, I could be romanticizing it all. However, there was no question about it, Don Mattingly became my guy. I don’t know when it happened, but by the end of the summer, we were all wearing Mattingly T-shirts.

It was the summer when we found our generation’s great player. It was the perfect summer to fall in love with baseball.

It was “The Summer of Mattingly and Winfield.”

And, it was the summer that, seemingly out of nowhere, Don Mattingly became our guy.

1984 statistics: 153 games, 662 plate appearances, 207 hits, 44 doubles, 23 home runs, 91 runs, 110 RBI, 1 stolen base, 6.2 BB%, 5.0 K%, .343/.381/.537, 153 wRC+, 6.1 fWAR.

It almost ended before it was able to begin. In spring training of 1984, Yankees manager Yogi Berra talked about his young player, Don Mattingly, in glowing terms. Berra announced early in the spring that the young Mattingly would be on the team all season as a reserve player. The Yankees’ plan was to move veteran Roy Smalley to first base and have Mattingly play a backup role at first base as well as the two corner outfield spots. Berra rationalized, “he has the type of stroke that enabled him to sit for three weeks and still hit.”

Mattingly had different ideas.

He was happy that he would be in the major leagues, but wanted to prove himself. Luckily, it took only a few weeks into spring training for Berra to see that it was time for his 23-year-old to be the starting first baseman. Even that decision didn’t result in Mattingly becoming an instant starter. Despite a great minor league track record, Mattingly didn’t get the “can’t miss” prospect label. We had no idea what we were in store for in 1984.

There’s always a certain fascination with prospects that all fans have. Prospects offer nothing but hope; we haven’t seen their flaws yet and we project them to be the next great player. Mattingly really didn’t have that. He was a 19th round draft pick for the Yankees and while he hit well in the minor leagues, he didn’t come into the 1984 season with a ton of hype. Most likely, it was because of his time in the big leagues the previous year when he was used a utility player, wearing number 46. In 91 games he hit .283/.333/.409 with four home runs.

That last number is most likely the culprit for the lack of prospect hype. A skilled hitter throughout his minor league career, Mattingly never hit more than 10 home runs in any of his four seasons before heading into the big leagues. He was a good hitter, but he didn’t fit the prototypical Bronx Bomber role.

Mattingly found himself on the bench for the first four games of the 1984 season while Ken Griffey took the starts at first base. Mattingly appeared as a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement in left field for Lou Piniella in all four games, getting a hit in four at bats. Those four games would be the last time Don Mattingly was used as a reserve player.

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He made his first start of the season on April 7th, being inserted to the third spot in the order and playing left field. He went 2-for-3 in his starting debut with a double and two runs scored. He followed that up with a 4-for-7 night with two doubles. He’d finish the month hitting .328/394/.516 with a home run.

Mattingly entered May as the starting first baseman and would appear in the outfield only a handful of times the rest of the season. With the starting job, Mattingly seized his opportunity with two incredible months, playing in 51 games and hitting .351/.379/.564 with 10 doubles and 11 home runs, earning an All-Star Game selection and entering the second half of the season as a budding star. Suddenly, there was genuine power.

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Yet, that wasn’t the story at the time. His teammate and fan favorite Dave Winfield was on a torrid stretch. After missing some time in April and rebounding to hit well over the two months (.293/.325/.490), Winfield went on a torrid stretch in June. Over the course of 24 games, Winfield hit an incredible .476/.495/.651 to bring his season batting average to a league leading .368. Throughout the season, Mattingly would credit hitting in front of Winfield as part of his success.

Winfield: .368 Mattingly: .351

Thus began the Summer of Mattingly and Winfield. The two would spend the rest of the summer atop the batting average leaders, setting up their famous race for the batting title.

Mattingly’s season was different. He suddenly found his power stroke, eventually leading the league with 44 doubles, the first of three consecutive years he would lead the league in two-baggers. He finished with 23 home runs, more than he’d hit in all his minor league seasons combined. It was his consistency that made his season special, he’d never hit below .319 in any month. Meanwhile, Winfield would hit below .300 in four of the six months, but Winfield’s hot August (.372/.450/.549) gave him the lead heading into the final month of the season.

Winfield: .352 Mattingly: .349

News reports would have the leaderboard update every single night. The Yankees were never in contention that season because of the Detroit Tigers’ dominant season, so this is what we had in New York.

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It all came down to the last game of the season. Mattingly entered with a .340 batting average. Winfield came in at .341. We were glued to our televisions on Sunday, September 30, 1984 to see who would come out the victor.

Mattingly would single in the first inning. Winfield would groundout. Mattingly doubled in third, and Winfield walked. Another Mattingly double in the 4th, and Winfield followed with a single. I was glued to the TV.

Mattingly flew out in the fifth. Winfield did the same to leadoff the sixth. In the eighth inning, Mattingly had the lead for the title — he didn’t need to bat. And, he risked losing the title if he made an out. His teammates warned him, but Don Mattingly wouldn’t do that. He took the at-bat and singled, finishing the day with four hits and a .343 batting average. I can still see Mattingly and Winfield shaking hands and walking off the field together.

Mattingly: .343 Winfield: .340

In retrospect, it isn’t all that surprising that Don Mattingly was that good. 1984 was the kickoff to a dominant six-year run as one of best players in the game. Back then, nobody ever dreamed of the 19th round draft pick becoming a star. The Hitman was born in 1984; he’d later become “The Captain” and, of course, “Donnie Baseball”. We watched him win awards, play through pain, and then finally make the postseason a decade later. 1984 was only the beginning of our connection with our guy.

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