Mattingly approaches season like a rookie

April 07, 1991|By Tom Verducci | Tom Verducci,Newsday

By 1987, Don Mattingly looked as if he had been dipped in th River Styx. Immortality, at least the sort that baseball offers, seemed a certainty. At that point, if his three full seasons were compared with several New York Yankee legends' careers at the same juncture, he had a better batting average than DiMaggio, more home runs than Mantle, more runs batted in than Gehrig and more hits than Ruth.

But like Achilles, who had some pretty good years at Troy before an arrow pierced his heel and revealed his mortality, it turned out that Mattingly is not invulnerable. The culprit is a bulging disc in his back.

It is a second-hand part in an otherwise marvelous machine. A glitch in a computer, a flaw in a tapestry, a fly in the gazpacho. "A condition since birth," he said. "It's just gotten worse."

Finally, last year, his back simply gave out. Mattingly missed 60 games and was hardly there for the other 102, at least by his standards. He batted .256 (67 points below his previous lifetime average) and managed only five home runs and 42 runs batted in.

He couldn't turn on the ball. He didn't hit a home run in his last 261 at-bats. Gary Pettis wound up with a better slugging percentage.

"I was trying to play with something I shouldn't have," he said.

Mattingly returned home to Evansville, Ind., on his shield.

"It was a very frustrating year," Mattingly said. "It was tough to take. The worst was when we were in Texas and George [Steinbrenner] called and they sent me home. It was like, 'Enough is enough. You've done enough waiting.' It was pretty depressing. It was depressing to think your body's that far gone."

Now another season -- if its start can be defined as a ballclub's first full spring-training workout -- begins in a day. It begins with the Yankees as uncertain about Mattingly as they are about Hensley Meulens, Kevin Maas and Dave Eiland, young players without a full year of major-league ball behind them.

"We have a lot of ifs," Yankees' General Manager Gene Michael said, "but Mattingly is the biggest if that we have."

Said Stump Merrill, the manager, "He could hit 10 home runs. He could hit 30. I don't know what to expect. None of us do. I may bat him second, third or fourth. He could be a great No. 2 hitter. I just don't know right now. I'm going to have to wait until I see him, see what he can do."

Will Mattingly revisit greatness? Or is he the more mortal Mattingly, left to resume the battle against injury as its evil twin, age, stands at the ready? Mattingly turns 30 April 20.

There are no expectations for him. That hasn't happened since spring training in 1984, when he walked into Fort Lauderdale a skinny 22-year-old kid making $80,000. Eight months later he was the American League batting champion and all the expectations began.

"It's a new beginning," Mattingly said. "Who knows what to expect? It's nice to say, 'Let's just wait and see. Let's see what I can do' and take it from there. It's like being a rookie again, only this time with experience and knowledge. That I like.

"I know people say, 'He's just not like he used to be. Not like 1985.' That was a magical year. People want 145 RBI every year. It's not going to happen. I drove in about 115 runs every year except for '88 -- and that wasn't that bad -- besides last year."

Everyone asks him about his back -- so often, in fact, that by now, "When I answer it's like pushing a button," he said. "The same answer comes up every time."

He tells them it feels fine. So far, so good. But he knows there's a difference between resting at home and snapping his torso to turn on 90-mph fastballs over a 162-game season.

The real answers remain unknown, even if he knows what he wants them to be. Yes, he said, he can be the old Mattingly again -- he envisions 30 home runs, 200 hits and a .330 average -- but only if that subversive disc allows it.

"I'm confident in a calm, laid-back way," Mattingly said. "It's not a feeling like, 'Hey, I'm going to have a good year.' I don't know that. If I stay healthy, I think I can.

"I should be able to get 200 hits. I don't know. But that's one of my major goals. Two hundred hits means I'll be in the lineup a lot.

"If I'm patient and I get good pitches to hit, I think I can still hit over 30 [home runs]. I don't know if I'll ever get 35 again. But I think I can hit 20 consistently. For a while there, people expected me to hit 30 every year.

"I want to get my average up to around .330. That would be a goal for me. Then I'd be a pretty serious threat.

"I feel real good about everything. I committed myself to five more years [for which he will be paid $19.3 million] and I'm really looking forward to the challenge of staying healthy and doing my work. That's a serious challenge. I'm talking about being productive, a level I can play at for the next five years."

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