It's tough to win a batting title your first full season, follow that with a most valuable player award and still remain somewhat unknown. To do so while playing for the New York Yankees ought to be impossible.
But then, Don Mattingly's a tough guy. Tough to know, tough to predict, tough to evaluate. Toughest to get out.
Most 24-year-olds would recall the winter night when they received the MVP plaque as one of glory. Mattingly says, "I don't remember much about it, except our son Taylor lost his pacifier and we were up all night with him. That'll bring you back to earth."
Just when you think you have the Don of the Bronx pegged as a phlegmatic stoic, he comes to a banquet after the Super Bowl wearing punk sunglasses and a headband with "Steinbrenner" on it. "Did it because Pete Rozelle was there," he says. That argument with George III over his new $1.37 million contract -- a million-buck raise in a year -- couldn't have anything to do with it?
If you guess along with Mattingly, you'll be the one who gets burned. That's the pitchers' book on the compact 5-foot-11, 175-pound first baseman -- little good it does them. Mattingly takes things as he finds them, then reacts. Except, occasionally, when he gets a step ahead of you, sets you up, and leaves you wondering, "Who's behind that mask anyway?"
Ask what pitcher and what pitch is hardest for him and he pulls a perfect Mattingly. "John Candelaria. Haven't got a clue to him yet. And high fast balls on the inner half. Write that down." True, Candy Man owns him. But the pitch Mattingly hits best is the fast ball in his wheelhouse. If he tells this white lie often enough, some dumb pitcher somewhere is going to believe it.
Nobody has figured out Mattingly yet, that's sure. Two years ago down here, he was just a prospect who'd hit .283 as a rookie but with no power (four homers in 279 at bats). Then the Yankees hoped he might be a perennial .300 hitter. Now that estimate's radically revised.
"Who do you compare him to?" says coach and former Yankees star Roy White. "Compare him to anybody you want. Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio."
For historical reference, the Musial analogy works. Left-handed hitter. Eccentric closed and coiled stance. Sprays the ball. Tons of doubles. Not too many walks. Hard to strike out.
"He doesn't look like Musial, but he hits like him," says Orioles Manager Earl Weaver. "Musial was the best at adjusting once the ball left the pitcher's hand. He'd hit the pitcher's pitch. Williams was the best at making them throw him his pitch. He didn't believe in adjusting. If it wasn't what he wanted, he knew enough to walk to first base. That's why he hit .406.
"Once every coupla games, a Musial or Mattingly is going to adjust and put that tough pitch in play instead of walking and you're going to get some extra outs. But he's also going to drive you crazy by popping a perfect fast ball on the fists down the left-field line for a double."
The difference between Stan the Man and Mattingly is that, at similar ages, Mattingly is undeniably ahead. Sure, Musial averaged 209 hits, 79 extra base hits and a .352 average in his first two big years. But Mattingly has been in that stratospheric range, too, for the last two years: 209 hits, 77 extra base hits and a .333 average.
Plus, Mattingly hit 23, then 35 homers and drove in 110, then 145 runs. When Musial was 23, 24 years old, he was a comparative stripling, hitting about a dozen homers and driving in 80 or 90 runs.
"The power's been evolutionary. A surprise. I never expected to hit 35," says Mattingly. "I learned the weight shift from Lou Piniella. He taught me to use my body more, look for pitches, set up pitchers and pull the ball."
The last Yankee to drive in more runs than Mattingly was DiMaggio in '48. Nobody has led the majors in doubles back-to-back since Tris Speaker. Special players do special things. Immediately.
Another Mattingly distinction is a Gold Glove. "Day game after a night game, Mattingly's still out there taking his 100 ground balls," says coach Jeff Torborg. When Mattingly botched one last July, it ended a streak of 1,371 plays without error. Try that playing catch.
Encircling Mattingly in comparisons only highlights his glow. He's Wade Boggs with power. Eddie Murray with hustle. George Brett but younger and in a home run park with Rickey Henderson on base and Dave Winfield on deck.
None of these parallels charm Mattingly much. "I appreciate it . . . but it doesn't help me on the field. So, let it go. I'd compare myself more to Bill Buckner. He's consistent, hard-nosed, good in the clutch. I love the way he plays. If it's biting it takes, then it's biting; if it's scratching, then scratch . . . . I'll take a ground ball off the chest, get my uniform dirty."
Why Buckner? When Mattingly was a teen-ager in Evansville, Ind., Buckner was hitting .300 for the Cubs, the Midwest's darlings. Why the passion for consistency -- the neither-rain-nor-sleet approach to performance? Well, (okay, laugh) his dad was a postman.
Mattingly's the easiest sort of player to praise -- the quiet gamer with eyeblack like a punt returner, an inconspicuous number on his back (23) and low unstylish stirrups on his pants. "Half the time you forget he's even here," says White.
"What I do on the field, that's me," says Mattingly. "If I take care of my game, everything else falls in place. The game is the thing you can control. Especially in New York, where so much stuff can clutter you up."
Like Ron Guidry, who clings to the Bayou, Mattingly is defiantly anti-style. Just by existing, Mattingly is a standing critique of Henderson. A Yankees prankster has tacked a sign above Henderson's locker here: "O Lord, help my words to be gracious and tender today, for tomorrow I may have to eat them." No one ever snipes at Mattingly.
As they say, no brag, just fact. "I feel like I earned the MVP. I've worked hard," says Mattingly. "I kind of expected it. If I didn't win it last year, I didn't know when I ever would. I don't know if I'll ever do that again."
Don't bet against him. He adjusts. Mattingly abandoned a written "book" on pitchers. "Too monotonous . . . . Actually, they're all tough, or none of them are. I get everybody or everybody gets me." What he really discovered was that a chronicle on catchers helped more. When lefties troubled him, he found a way to trouble them back; though he hits 60 points less against them, he slugs more homers in far fewer at bats.
If Mattingly has a flaw, it's probably ineradicable because it runs to the core. Will he, like Buckner, be too tough to stay in one piece? Last spring, arthroscopic knee surgery. This spring, a bone bruise to the thumb that has him benched. So far, not much. But will it add up?
Come back in 2001 for that. Then we'll really see how well he stacks up with Musial. For now, let Scott McGregor speak for a multitude of pained pitchers who have gotten to know Don Mattingly far too well, far too quickly. "How does he strike me?" says the Oriole. "All over the place. He just waxes you and goes home."