At a time when it seems like the New York Yankees retire numbers for the sake of doing so, there’s no denying that Don Mattingly deserves his rightful place in Monument Park.
There was a lot of losing during Donnie Baseball’s time in pinstripes, but that was no fault of his. Throughout his 14-year big league career — all spent with the Yankees — he was considered one of the premier talents in all of baseball. Mattingly was a six-time All-Star and took home nine Gold Glove awards. He took home the American League’s Most Valuable Player honor in 1985 and was named team captain in 1991.
He was the face of the franchise.
Mattingly was always considered a fantastic teammate who wanting winning above all — but even he couldn’t escape individual marks that would define his career in New York.
In 1984, Mattingly and teammate Dave Winfield competed for the AL’s batting title all season long, a race similar to Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris’ home run chase in 1961. Number 23, of course, was the victor.
And it didn’t stop there. Mattingly finished second in AL MVP voting in 1986, but that didn’t stop The Sporting News from naming him “The Best Player in Baseball.” He played second base and third base even though he threw with his left hand. In 1987, Mattingly set a major league record with six grand slams in a season — the only six he hit in his career.
The aforementioned feats alone make Mattingly one of the best to ever don the interlocking NY. But there is something that separates him from the rest of the organization’s greats who are on display in center field at Yankee Stadium.
He never won a World Series. He never even played in a World Series.
Mattingly’s misfortunes can be attributed to bad luck. He made his major league debut in 1982, just one year after the Yankees lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Fall Classic. His last game was in the ALDS in 1995 — his first playoff series. The Yankees went on their dynastic run in the late 90s just one year later.
He had a number of legendary teammates, both in the realm of the Bronx and around the league. Mattingly batted in front of Winfield for the better part of nine seasons. Names like Rickey Henderson, Don Baylor, Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key came to New York during his career and he also spent time playing next to franchise legends like Ron Guidry, Willie Randolph, Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill.
The talent was there, but the results weren’t.
And unfortunately for Mattingly, that string of unfortunate luck has continued past his playing career and into his days on the bench.
The Steinbrenners offered Mattingly the role of hitting coach in 2004. In his four seasons as a coach (he was also promoted to bench coach in 2007), the Yankees suffered one epic collapse against the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS and three disappointing exits in the ensuing years.
A change of coasts couldn’t change Mattingly’s fortunes. He made it to consecutive National League Championship Series working under Joe Torre with the Los Angeles Dodgers but failed to make it to the World Series. And even though he was promoted to manager in 2011, he could never lead his team to the promised land.
Mattingly took on a new task last season. He shifted his focus away from win-now clubs and instead signed with the Miami Marlins — one of the more controversial teams in MLB but one that also boasts a ton of young talent.
But a combination of tragedy and underachievement may lead to a trigger-happy ownership group to terminate their contract with Mattingly two years early.
And that decision could be the only thing standing between Mattingly and the last thing he needs on his baseball resume.
The Yankees’ managerial situation will face plenty of questions when the 2017 season concludes. Joe Girardi — who beat out Mattingly for the position a decade ago — will no longer be under contract. There aren’t many managers better than Girardi, but the Yankees may be in search for new blood to lead their group of Baby Bombers to championship number 28.
Who would be better than Mattingly to fill that void?
The Yankees are unique in that they’ve always had a superstar, and they’ve always had a captain, and they’ve seldom been the same person. Like Lou Gehrig, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Thurman Munson and Derek Jeter, Mattingly, too had that unique mix.
He’s as fierce a manager as he was a player. He knows everything that comes with being an athlete in New York. He can teach the new wave of Yankees what it means to really be a Yankee — after all, he even implemented the no-shave policy to the Marlins last season.
At the same time, the Yankees are on the doorstep of contention. Aaron Judge is a perennial MVP candidate. Luis Severino is looking more and more like an ace after each time he steps on the mound. Gary Sanchez has shown the capability to be a game-changing talent. Clint Frazier has the unique look and attitude a city like New York gravitates towards. And there’s a lot more talent on the way.
Mattingly has unfinished business in the Bronx. He’s done everything there is to do in pinstripes.
Everything except win a World Series.
There are a lot of things that have to happen in this hypothetical scenario. Who knows if the Marlins will let go of Mattingly? What if the Yankees somehow win the World Series this season? There’s no way Girardi wouldn’t be retained.
But this story writes itself. It would be quite the Bronx fairy tale.
Dan Federico is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.