Some October, a day for Mattingly

Ken Rosenthal

August 15, 1993|By Ken Rosenthal

NEW YORK -- Someday, the New York Yankees will stage a Don Mattingly Day, retire his number, erect a plaque in Monument Park, the whole bit. Only Mattingly doesn't see it that way -- didn't even think of it yesterday when the Yankees honored Reggie Jackson.

"He hit three bombs that won a World Series game," Mattingly said. "That's already more than I've done."

True, Jackson was Mr. October, and Mattingly has yet to reach the postseason. But Jackson was a Yankee only five years. This is Mattingly's 11th season in pinstripes. He's finally healthy. And he might finally get the October he deserves.

The Yankees remained tied for first place after yesterday's 4-2 victory over the Orioles. Mattingly hit a two-run single to tie the score in the fifth inning. He's batting .342 with 10 homers and 51 RBI in his past 59 games, looking like the Mattingly of old.

So, is there a Don Mattingly Day in the future? "Oh, yeah, sure," said Orioles third-base coach Mike Ferraro, who was a coach with the Yankees from 1987 to '91. "He probably deserves it more so than Reggie. This guy is an all-around player.

"He's a much better hitter than Reggie was, a much better PTC player. Reggie got a lot of hits off strength. He struck out a lot. This kid was, and is, a pure hitter. Plus, he's probably the best defensive first baseman in the American League."

You can see the joy returning to Mattingly now, the intensity, the fire. Gone is the rib-cage muscle pull that forced him to miss nearly a month earlier this season. Gone is the nagging back pain that might have cost him a shot at the Hall of Fame.

On Friday night, after the Yankees completed a spectacular double play, Mattingly turned to Orioles first-base coach Davey Lopes and said, "Just like Russell to Lopes to Garvey, huh?" Lopes shook his head and smiled. "That cracked me up," he said.

Yesterday, Mattingly approached Harold Reynolds at first. "Is this some kind of race, or what?" he asked. The Yankees haven't finished higher than fourth since 1986, haven't reached the postseason since '81. Mattingly, 32, arrived after the glory days were over.

Not coincidentally, the club's decline paralleled his own. Mattingly hit .300 six straight seasons from 1984 to '89, averaging 27 homers and 114 RBI. But then his back problems surfaced, limiting him to 28 homers the next three seasons, robbing him of his power.

Mattingly might never be the same hitter who hit six grand slams in one season and home runs in eight straight games, but suddenly he's driving the ball again. He's batting .311, and his 16-homer, 86-RBI pace would be even better if he hadn't missed 25 games.

In the third inning yesterday, he was so focused on a 2-0 pitch from Arthur Rhodes, Reynolds described him as "coming out of his shoes." But Mark McLemore robbed him with a leaping catch at the right-field wall, losing his cap as he crashed into the fence.

Mattingly missed a homer to the same spot by inches Friday night, settling for a single off the wall. "It's almost like, just walk him," Reynolds said. "When Michael Jordan gets the ball, he's going to score. When Don Mattingly gets runners on second and third, just put him on."

Reynolds was speaking generally, not criticizing manager Johnny Oates for pitching to Mattingly in that spot with one out in the fifth. Oates considered walking Mattingly and summoning Mark Williamson to face Danny Tartabull, but the way the Orioles are going, what did it matter?

"Yeah, I thought of it," Oates said. "But Mattingly was 1-for-10 off Rhodes. Even if he hits a sacrifice fly, we've still got the lead [2-1]. Our bullpen has been overworked lately. I didn't want to use those guys at all today."

But Mattingly hit Rhodes' first pitch for a broken-bat, two-run single to right-center, and Williamson ended up facing Tartabull, anyway. Surely, Mattingly will hit balls harder, but Ferraro can see the difference in his stance, the way he's bending and leaning back, instead of standing straight up to protect his back.

Ferraro recalls Mattingly swinging the bat 300 times a day, in front of his locker, in the batting cage at midnight, everywhere he went. The relentless approach probably contributed to his back problems, but all that's in the past. Mattingly is healthy. The Yankees are tied for first place.

"He really wants it bad," Ferraro said. "That's another reason why he's performing so well -- he can taste it. He doesn't want to be considered a Yankee who never got into postseason play, like another Ernie Banks. That would really bother him."

You'll see him at Don Mattingly Day.

5) Better you should see him in October.

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