For all the talk about the current face of the Yankees, whether it be A-Rod, Derek Jeter or someone else, Don Mattingly was the clear symbol of the team during the 1980s and early 1990s. Many of us grew up watching and idolizing Donnie Baseball, and no topic generates more discussion than whether or not Don Mattingly belongs in the Hall of Fame.
For the most part, Yankee fans agree that Don Mattingly was very good. He was a bright spot on a franchise that made the playoffs once during his tenure and generally wasn’t good. In fact, the team finished first just once during his career, and that just happened to be in a year with no postseason. But Mattingly, these fans, argue just wasn’t a Hall of Famer. He never reached those benchmark Hall of Fame levels, and while he certainly deserves to see his 23 hung up, a spot in Cooperstown would not be warranted.
Sometimes, though, we lose sight of just how good Don Mattingly was. For those of us who grew up watching him, we didn’t really start to appreciate baseball until Mattingly’s quick and rapid collapse. For five years, Don Mattingly was one of the best players in baseball.
Between 1984-1989, Mattingly’s peak and among players with at least 1000 plate appearances, he was one of the top offensive players around. His OPS+ of 147 was seventh best in the Majors, and his 160 home runs were sixth best. His overall line was .327/.372/.530. As 1989 was his age 28 season and he was just entering his peak, anyone watching would be right in expecting a future plaque on the wall in the Hall of Fame.
But Mattingly’s career didn’t follow that typical path. From 1990 until he retired following the 1995 season, Mattingly’s numbers weren’t as impressive. His OPS+ over that period ranked him just 147th out of those with 1000 plate appearances, and he hit just 58 home runs. He hit a pedestrian .286/.345/.405. Injuries derailed his career and sapped his power. He was out of baseball before his 35th birthday.
So Mattingly was very good, but he wasn’t the best. He had a five-year peak that ranks up their in the 1980s, but at a time when he should have gotten better, at a time when most sluggers enter their peak, he declined. It was a fast and painful decline.
Had Mattingly sustained his early production over a long career, he would have been a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame, but he didn’t. He’ll always be remembered as a very good player, an icon of the Yankees and one who declined quickly and painfully. Cooperstown will forever miss him, but that’s just the way it should be.