Learning from history with Don Mattingly


Buck Showalter, George Steinbrenner and Don Mattingly in 1993. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

As the Yankees spent Spring Training in 1990 in Fort Lauderdale, Don Mattingly found himself getting ready to play out the final season of a three-year contract. He was a month away from his 29th birthday and over the last six years had hit .327/.372/.530 with 161 home runs. He had made six straight All Star appearances and had earned himself five Golden Gloves and an MVP award. While his seasonal numbers had declined from his gaudy totals he put up in 1985 and 1986, he was one of the league’s top first baseman and the Yanks’ biggest superstar. He would, in other words, earn his money.

That spring, a year before Mattingly was to hit free agency, the Yankees made the point moot. They signed him to a five-year extension worth $19.3 million, and until Jose Canseco topped that total a few months later, Mattingly’s $3.86 million annual salary was the highest in baseball. Donnie Baseball would be the Yanks’ marquee name for years to come.

But for Mattingly, disaster struck. Number 23 had injured his back in a clubhouse incident in 1987, and in 1990, his back problems would flare up again. He played just 102 games and hit .256/.308/.335 with five home runs. While he recovered some of his health, over the duration of that five-year contract, Mattingly was a shell of his former self. From 1991 until his retirement in 1995, he hit .291/.350/.416 with just 53 home runs. His playing time dipped from 153 games per season to 134, and he went from a superstar with top power to an above-average hitter with recurrent health problems and little power.

Over the weekend, Steve Lombardi at WasWatching highlighted the Mattingly saga. With much attention on the Yanks’ decision not to extend Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter right now, Lombardi focused on how Steinbrenner used to operate his club. He wouldn’t let his star players approach free agency and treated them well. “Don’t tell Jeter this is how the Yankees used to roll,” he said in the headline.

To me, though, Mattingly’s contract status and his subsequent decline serve as a warning to the Yankees in 2010. When George Steinbrenner jumped the gun and overextended Mattingly, the team paid a high price. The club knew that Mattingly’s back problems sapped him of his power in 1988 and 1989. They could have waited out 1990 to see how he fared. Had he duplicated his 1990 season, there’s no way the Yanks would have extended him that $19.3 million offer.

Today, Rivera and Jeter find themselves in similar situations. The two are in the latter stages of Hall of Fame careers and both are still very productive players. The Yankees will, as Hank Steinbrenner has noted, take care of these guys when the season ends. There is no reason to do it a day sooner. What happens if age catches up to Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera this year? The Yanks can’t reward these two for the past if the future doesn’t hold similar levels of productivity.

As always, baseball is a business, and putting money into a risky investment before the investment requires it is rarely a good idea. The Yankees didn’t wait with Don Mattingly twenty years ago, but they will wait with Jeter and Rivera today. Both players know and accept that they’ll get their dollars when the time is right, and the Yankees know to be careful when the big bucks are concerned. That’s just smart baseball.

Categories : Days of Yore, Musings


  1. Regis says:

    Great picture!

  2. Bo says:

    Lets be real here. if they didnt want to invest in risky investments they wouldnt even entertain money/contracts for a 40 yr old pitcher and a 37 yr old SS.

    The thing is these are the Yankees and for their biz model these two mean more to them long term than a salary now.

    Luckily they have no worries with the money for them.

  3. Ed says:

    While I agree with your premise Ben, I think you’re making it sound more clear cut than it is.

    Posada wanted to negotiate an extension before the ’07 season. Instead the Yankees waited, and Posada had a career year. He also hit the market at a time when the Mets were willing to spend big on a catcher, and people were believing that he might jump ship. If the Yankees extended Posada before the ’07 season, he probably doesn’t get the 4th year and possibly a lower AAV as well.

    It cuts both ways. With the size of the Yankees budget though, the possible extra expense from waiting longer is more easily absorbed than it is for other teams, so they don’t have to do as many early signings.

    • Chris says:

      I would think that the chances of a player in his late 30′s having a career year and earning a larger contract are much lower than the chances of him collapsing.

      • Snakes on the mother effin plane says:

        Exactly. On balance this strategy would play into the Yanks hands more than not. Remember we’re talking about *re* signing existing players, so they’ve already done a tour with us as a FA or at least already burned through their arb years and possibly a year or two of FA (ala Cano when his turn comes up). All a way of saying: older players in general.

        And for the very few Jeters and Mos of the world, for whom “it doesn’t matter either way” anything other than a career ending injury, or off-a-cliff decline in production, probably doesn’t impact too much at the margin in terms of years and salary.

      • Ed says:

        Of course, that’s why I agree with Ben’s premise. But it does happen on occasion, which has to be acknowledged.

        Also, the rule applies to everyone coming up on free agency, not just older players. It could easily be an issue with someone like Swisher, Cano, or Granderson in a few years.

    • “With the size of the Yankees budget though, the possible extra expense from waiting longer is more easily absorbed than it is for other teams, so they don’t have to do as many early signings.”

      This is the important point, and I’d add to it the related point that the Yankees’ financial advantages also mean that they don’t have to worry as much as other teams about the risk of losing a free agent to another team. The Yankees’ financial advantages make a big difference in this discussion – the utility of extending a player prior to the expiration of his contract is much less important to the Yankees than it is to other teams because they can absorb any additional salary that the player might earn himself and they can spend enough money that they don’t have to worry as much about the risk of losing the free agent.

      Extending a guy and then watching him suffer a career-altering injury during the first year of the new contract, at a point in time when he still would have been under contract to the team in the absence of such new contract and would have been approaching the expiration of his old contract, would hurt the Yankees much more than waiting until the end of the previous/existing contract and risking having to spend a few more dollars for a player who has earned the money.

      Not to mention that we can’t disregard the utility gained by the Yankees by sticking to a rule across the board and not picking and choosing who they extend prior to the expiration of their current contract, which helps with media relations and with contract negotiations since no player/other employee can feel slighted by the Yankees’ decision to not negotiate until the expiration of the existing/prior contract.

      In sum… There are a ton of reasons to wait until the expiration of the current contract instead of extending a player before he reaches free agency, and those reasons all, in my opinion pretty significantly, outweigh the utility of extending a player prior to the expiration of the current contract in order to maybe save a few dollars and keep the player away from the open market.

      • “While I agree with your premise Ben, I think you’re making it sound more clear cut than it is.”

        So, for the reasons stated above, I think the quoted language is wrong… I think it’s just as clear-cut as Ben implied in his post, and probably even more so.

  4. Sam P. says:

    I noticed that Mattingly’s sideburns were well within the Yankee facial hair policy’s limit in the above picture.

    “I still like him better than Steinbrenner.”


    Edited by RAB: Why, oh why, do people continue to comment off-topic when we’ve created an off-topic thread?

  6. Efram Goldman says:

    The Yankees know to be careful when the big bucks are concerned? What were those Pavano and Igawa contracts?

    • Tom Zig says:

      Pavano was done by Steinbrenner

      Igawa was just poor scouting I guess, but definitely not big bucks.

      • Chan HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO Park says:

        Pavano was done by Cashman. Ken Davidoff wrote an article discussing this topic dissecting the free agent signings/trades that Cashman himself “actually” did. Pavano was on the list of “Cashman all the way”.

    • ROBTEN says:

      Whether it was Cashman or Steinbrenner (and, FWIW signing a young free-agent pitcher rather than trading for an aging one seems like a Cashman move), it is easy to criticize the signing in retrospect. At the time, a number of teams were trying to sign him:

      “On Thursday morning in Detroit, coveted free agent pitcher Carl Pavano began an adventure that he hopes will help him decide where to spend the next few years of his blossoming career. He will travel to five cities in less than a week and a half. After Detroit, Pavano stops in New York, Baltimore, Seattle and Anaheim — an itinerary that seems more appropriate for a rock tour. Some have dubbed Pavano’s trip ‘Carl-a-palooza.’


      A 2004 season in which he was 18-8 with a 3.00 ERA has put Pavano squarely at the top of the list of many teams seeking a starting free agent pitcher. Pavano, 28, is younger than Brad Radke, stronger and sturdier than Pedro Martinez and more consistent in the strike zone than Matt Clement. He will likely never face another opportunity again to command top dollar for his services. This contract will likely be the biggest of his career in terms of monetary gain, length and stability.”


    • Igawa and Pavano were free agents available on the open market.

      This post is about the wisdom, or lack thereof, of offering contract extensions to aging/injury-risk players already under contract.

      Apples, oranges.

  7. Buddy Biancalana says:

    What was the clubhouse incident involving Mattingly in ’87?

    • Check out this article. He and Bob Shirley were wrestling in the clubhouse. Despite their contemporaneous denial, the two eventually owned up to the truth.

      • ROBTEN says:

        That this is his Wikipedia entry is both hilarious and cruel:

        “Robert Charles Shirley (born June 25, 1954 in Cushing, Oklahoma) was a Major League Baseball pitcher from 1977 to 1987 for the San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals. Shirley was a southpaw pitcher who worked both as a starter and in relief. Most notable for injuring Don Mattingly’s back in the clubhouse in 1987 and ruining his career.

        • Most notable for injuring Don Mattingly’s back in the clubhouse in 1987 and ruining his career.“

          I wonder if the “his” refers to Mattingly’s career being ruined, or Shirley’s career being ruined. Post-fight, we cut Shirley loose, he went to KC, stunk, got cut again, signed a minor league deal with us, and was never heard from again, even though he was only 34.

          • ROBTEN says:

            George: You have to answer for Mattingly, Bob. You gave the finger to the fans when you threw him against the trainer’s table.

            Bob Shirley: George, you got it all wrong.

            George: Ah, that little farce you played with my daughter. You think that would fool a Steinbrenner?

            Bob Shirley: George, I’m innocent. I swear on the kids.

            George: Sit down.

            Bob Shirley: Please don’t do this to me, George. Please don’t.

            George: Steve Trout is dead. So is Cerone. Phil Lombardi. Rich Bordi. Dan Pasqua. Today I settled all family business so don’t tell me that you’re innocent. Admit what you did.

            [Bob starts sobbing]

            George: Get him a drink. Don’t be afraid, Bob. Come on, you think I’d make my daughter a widow? I’m Godfather to your son.

            [Bob get handed a drink]

            George: Go ahead. Drink. Drink. No, you’re out of the family business, that’s your punishment. You’re finished. I’m putting you on a plane to KC. Lou?

            [Lou hands George an airplane ticket]

            George: I want you to stay there, you understand?

            [Bob nods]

            George: Only don’t tell me that you’re innocent. Because it insults my intelligence and it makes me very angry. Now, who approached you first? McNamara? Yawkey?

            Bob Shirley: It was Yawkey.

            George: Good. There’s a car outside that will take you to the airport. I’ll call your wife and tell her what flight you’re on.

            Bob Shirley: Listen, George…

            George: Go on. Get out of my sight.

            /and scene

  8. Rick B says:

    I agree with the general message of this article, but I do think the situations are a little different. Mattingly came up in 1982 and wasnt an everyday player till ’84. That means that he was only an everyday player for 6 years prior to the new contract. Jeter and Mo have both been everyday players for more than twice as long. They are also far older than 29, but neither has showed any real sign of decline.

    Essentially, I think the Mattingly situation shows exactly why the current Yankee policy is a sound one. There is nothing worse than resigning a guy before his contract expires only to see him go down with an career threatening injury.

    However, (and this is where I know you will all disagree with me), the Yankees will not and should not be considering paying Jeter and Mo only for what they will do going forward. They should be getting payed partially for the service they have done for the franchise over the course of their careers. From a financial perspective the money those to bring in from merchandise easily covers any lack of performance. Even if they both absolutely suck, I want them to finish their careers in New York. I want to be at Yankee Stadium when Jeter gets his 4000 hit (God willing) even if he’s getting payed 25 million to hit .280 and the Yankees are stuck toward the bottom of the division for a few years. Therefore, I could care less whether we resign them now or later, because I do not view their value at this point in their careers only in terms of statistics.

  9. Hughesus Christo says:

    Do Rivera and Jeter have some degenerative/chronic injuries we haven’t heard about?

    In before someone writes “age”

  10. Pete C. says:

    This off topic, but Don Mattingly is in L.A. wearing Yogi’s number. Jesu Christo, doesn’t that skeve anybody out?
    Somewhere out there Jackie Robinson is laughing his ass off.

  11. DSFC says:

    That was 20 years ago? My God I’m getting old…..

  12. Geek says:

    The times have changed. There is no doubt that Jeter will remain a Yankee as long as he wants to play, and the same is true of Mo although with a pitcher there is less flexibility. Neither are the type to demand terms that are unreasonable. The problem is the other players and agents who will say me too and the Yankees are smart enough business people to do the deal when it needs to get done.

    I was thinking about Don Mattingly today and how he picked up roots when he did not get selected to be manager. I noted that when Torre said he is staying 1 more year that there was no story about Mattingly. Jetter will always be a Yankee.

  13. [...] possibility that Jeter will ask for six years, or an ownership stake, and that extending him now would be a mistake. Mike Vaccaro came up with another angle today, saying that the Captain’s next contract has [...]

  14. [...] mine for power hitters on the wane. Go ahead and break out your Don Mattingly Yankeeography for a stark reminder of this. Bring lots of [...]

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