1. Don-nie Base-ball
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1 1 Don-nie Base-ball “There are certain people you cheer for, and Mattingly was one of them. He is the Yankees.” Jay Buhner The crowd was still in a frenzy as Donald Arthur Mattingly strode to the plate moments after his teammate, Ruben Sierra, homered into the right-center-field bleachers. It was the second game of the 1995 Division Series between the Yankees and the Mariners, and it was now tied at 2. Sierra’s shot, a high drive off a breaking ball, had incited an already-overcharged crowd of 57,126 at Yankee Stadium. For any team—for its players, its owners, and, of course, its fans—postseason play is an especially exciting and urgent time of year. But for these two teams in this particular year, the games took on special significance. After years of mediocrity and downright failure, the Yankees and the Mariners were each hoping for redemption in 1995. And more was at stake than each team’s baseball honor. There were players’ and coaches’ contracts on the line, and the Mariners found themselves fighting for their very home in the heart of Washington State. Franchise and individual interests aside, on a national level, fans’ feelings about baseball had reached an all-time low, so playing heart-stopping, drama-filled baseball became important from a business perspective that transcended the interests of each team and was urgent for the very salvation of Major League Baseball. 2 • BASEBALL’S GREATEST SERIES No player or person was more representative of what these postseason games meant to New York, and arguably to all lovers of baseball in its purist form, than Don Mattingly. Nicknamed “Donnie Baseball” by the Minnesota Twins’ Kirby Puckett, Mattingly was born and raised in Evansville, Indiana, a town of over 100,000 located on the Ohio River. Growing up, he’d shown an affinity for both baseball and basketball. Ultimately, baseball won out as he was selected nineteenth overall in the 1979 draft by the Yankees. He made his Major League debut as a left fielder on September 8, 1982, a year after New York lost the World Series to the Dodgers. Gradually, Mattingly saw more playing time, particularly at first base. In 1984, he emerged as one of the game’s best hitters. That year he batted .343, besting teammate Dave Winfield on the final day of the season for the American League batting title. In 1985, Mattingly drove in 145 runs, hit thirty-five home runs, batted .324, and won the first of nine Gold Gloves he would earn at first base. He also captured the American League’s Most Valuable Player award, the first Yankee to win it since 1976. Personal success, however, was overcome by the Yankees’ inability to reach the playoffs for a fourth straight season. Despite ninety-seven victories, New York finished two games behind the Toronto Blue Jays for the American League East division title. It was the closest Mattingly came to the postseason for nearly a decade. In 1986, Mattingly set a Yankees record with 238 hits, batted .352, won another Gold Glove, and finished second in the MVP voting. The Yankees also finished second that year, losing the division to the Red Sox. In 1987, Mattingly tied a Major League record by hitting a home run in eight consecutive games. He also set a Major League record by hitting six grand slams in a season. During the 1989 season, he drove in 113 runs and made the last of his six All-Star Game appearances. That season marked the end of Mattingly’s six-year stretch as the greatest hitter in baseball. Yet, during that time, despite all the personal accolades and achievements, the Yankees never made the postseason. Instead, the team got progressively worse as the decade went along. By 1990, the Yankees were in complete disarray, finishing an American League worst 67–95. Not only was the team awful, but Mattingly, their only legitimate star, finally succumbed to a back injury he had first experienced in 1987. His back had been problematic ever since, and by 1990 it was so bad that he was forced to miss sixty games. He finished the season with a career-worst .256 batting average and only DON-NIE BASE-BALL • 3 five home runs. Mattingly’s back would trouble him throughout the rest of his career. In 1991, Mattingly was named captain of the Yankees but returned to another subpar team. They finished in...