Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Don Mattingly for the Yankees Not Winning a Pennant

April 20, 1961, 55 years ago: Donald Arthur Mattingly is born in Evansville, Indiana.

I've written before of The Curse of Donnie Baseball, which states that no team with Don Mattingly in uniform has ever won a Pennant, and none ever will:

* The Yankees with Mattingly as a player, 1982 to 1995.
* The Yankees with Mattingly as a coach, 2004 to 2007.
* The Los Angeles Dodgers with Mattingly as a coach, 2008 to 2010.
* The Dodgers with Mattingly as manager, 2011 to 2015.

Now, he is the manager of the Miami Marlins. They won't win a Pennant with him in uniform, either.

Indeed, from 1996, the 1st year after he retired, until 2001, the Yankees won the Pennant every year but 1. Which one? 1997 -- the year they retired his Number 23 and gave him his Plaque for Monument Park.

Is Mattingly the ultimate jinx in sports? Is he the reason his teams have never won a Pennant with him in uniform?

Or am I wrong? Am I being unfair to a "Yankee Legend"? (I have to put those words in quotes. The idea that a man can play for the Yankees, never win a Pennant, and still be called a "Yankee Legend" is ridiculous.)

Certainly, as manager, he has a greater effect on his teams than any individual player. This is also true for him as hitting instructor in The Bronx and as bench coach in Chavez Ravine, in both cases under Joe Torre.

So, for the purposes of this post, I'm putting aside his managing and coaching, and focusing only on his playing career.

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Don Mattingly for the Yankees Not Winning a Pennant

First, let me consider some reasons that didn't make the cut: The Best of the Rest.

Don Mattingly. In 1985, in 1986, in 1987, in 1988, and, arguably, in 1993, he was the biggest reason why the Yankees even had a chance to make the Playoffs. From 1984 to 1988, he might have been the best player in baseball.

Baseball Is a Team Game. It takes 25 men to win, and it takes 25 men to lose. True, Mattingly was the only constant on the field for 14 seasons, but there were a lot of other players who simply didn't get the job done.

The Competition. The Detroit Tigers ran away with the American League Eastern Division in his batting title season of 1984, and won the World Series. They also won the Division in 1987. The Toronto Blue Jays won the Division in 1985, beating the Yankees out by 2 games. They also won the Division in 1993, beating the Yankees out by 7 games, after they were tied on September 8. (They also won it in 1989, 1991 and 1992, but the Yankees were never in the race in those seasons.

The Boston Red Sox won the AL East in 1986, 1988 and 1995. (And in 1990, although the Yankees were far out of the race that year. And the Seattle Mariners came from 2 games to none down to beat the Yankees in the 1995 AL Division Series, Mattingly's only postseason series.

Let's give credit where it's due. Sometimes, you don't blow it: Sometimes, the other team is simply better.

Buck Showalter. If Showalter had managed Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS the way Joe Torre or Joe Girardi did, he would have relieved David Cone before allowing him to throw 147 pitches. (Girardi better not read that number, or he could have a stroke.) Maybe no one yet knew what Mariano Rivera could do, but Cone was clearly left in too long, because Buck trusted his starter too much and his bullpen too little, as opposed to the Joes, who worked the other way around.

Now, for the Top 5:

5. Injuries. Not just his own, although the back injury that started bothering him in 1988 turned him from maybe the best player in baseball into a guy who usually couldn't get the job done anymore, with only fleeting moments of the old greatness.

Injuries to Dave Winfield and Willie Randolph turned the 1987 Yankees from a 1st place team in July into a 4th-place team. Injuries to several players turned the 1988 Yankees from a 1st place team in June into a team that just wasn't quite good enough to win the AL East.

4. The Strike of '94. When it hit on August 12, the Yankees had the best record in the AL, and led the East by 6 1/2 games over the Baltimore Orioles. It ruined their best chance at the postseason since 1981.

The Yankees weren't the only team whose players screwed themselves by going on strike:

* The Chicago White Sox led the AL Central Division. They hadn't won a Pennant since 1959 or a World Series since 1917.

* The Texas Rangers led the AL Western Division. They had been in the League since 1972 (since 1961 if you count their time as the new Washington Senators), and had never made the postseason.

* The Houston Astros were only 1 game behind the Cincinnati Reds in the NL Central. They stood to win the Wild Card (this was the 1st season in which that was available), and had a chance at their 1st Pennant since coming into the League in 1962.

* The Colorado Rockies had a shot at the Wild Card, and even the NL West, despite being in only their 2nd season of play.

* And the Montreal Expos led the NL East, and had the best record in all of baseball. They had been in the League since 1969, and had never won a Pennant. They never recovered: They moved after the 2004 season, and, now the Washington Nationals, have still never won a Pennant.

Back here, in the New York Tri-State Area, we thought this was it: Donnie Baseball was finally going to play in a World Series. Now, it felt like it was never going to happen.

True, the Yankees did make the Playoffs in 1995, giving Mattingly his 1st trip to the postseason, but we know what happened. Maybe 1994 was his real chance, and it was taken away from him -- by the owners, by the Commissioner, and by the players themselves.

3. Pitching. In 1985, Ron Guidry won 22 games (a total no New York pitcher has reached since), and Phil Niekro won 16 (at age 46!). All other Yankee starters combined won 30. Gator and Knucksie each pitched over 220 innings; no other Yankee reached 160. The Yankees finished 2 games back.

In 1986, Dennis Rasmussen won 18 games, but no other Yankee pitcher, starter or reliever, even won 10. Rasmussen and Guidry (9-12) each pitched over 192 innings; no other Yankee reached 132. The Yankees finished 5 1/2 games back.

In 1987, Rick Rhoden won 16 games, and Tommy John won 13 (at age 44!). No other Yankee starter won 10. John pitched just under 188 innings, and only he and Rhoden reached 155. The Yankees finished 9 games back.

In 1988, John Candelaria won 13 games -- and that led the Yankees. Rhoden and Richard Dotson each won 12. Rhoden pitched 197 innings, and was the only Yankee pitcher to reach 177. The Yankees finished 3 1/2 games back.

Just 1 more good starting pitcher in any of those seasons, and the Yankees would, at the least, have won the AL East title. The '85 Royals pulled postseason upsets over the Blue Jays and the St. Louis Cardinals. The '86 Red Sox came from 3-1 down to beat the California Angels. The '86 Mets had to reach way down to find ways to beat first the Houston Astros and then the Red Sox. The '87 Minnesota Twins shocked first the Tigers and then the Cardinals. The '88 Los Angeles Dodgers shocked first the Mets and then the Oakland Athletics.

These were years when, once you reached the Playoffs, anything was possible, who knows what the Yankees could have done with just 1 more good starting pitcher?

2. Billy Martin. Yes, Billy picked the Yankees up after their awful 1985 start under Yogi Berra. But Billy fell apart in September, and the team followed his lead.

Billy began the 1988 season as Yankee manager, and some of his early moves worked (including starting Rhoden, a good-hitting pitcher, as the DH and batting him 7th in a game I saw live, and it worked: Rhoden hit an RBI sacrifice fly and the Yankees won). But as the injuries piled up, Billy lost control again, and he had to be fired.

Billy did perhaps his most remarkable managing between late April and mid-September 1985. If he had been able to keep it going to October 6, the Yankees could have won Title 23 then, instead of having to wait until 1996. If he had been able to keep himself on an even keel in 1988, he could have pulled it off then. But Billy Martin was his own worst enemy, and the Yankees suffered as a result.

Of course, there was Billy's other big enemy, and his biggest enabler, a sucker for a comeback story, who couldn't say, "Enough," even after he'd said, "Enough" -- if you'll pardon my use of what could have been a Yogiism:

1. George Steinbrenner. He fired managers too soon. He gave Billy Martin too many chances. He fired coaches too soon. He fired general managers too soon. He sent guys down too soon. He brought guys up too soon.

He traded guys too soon. He traded Willie McGee for Bob Sykes. He signed Dave Collins, got a bad year out of him, then traded Collins, Fred McGriff and Mike Morgan for Dale Murray. He traded Shane Rawley for Al Holland. He traded Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps. He traded Ron Hassey, at a time when the Yankees really needed a catcher, for Britt Burns, at a time when the Yankees really needed another starting pitcher, but Burns never threw a pitch in Pinstripes.

It's easy to say now that George, unlike his sons Hal and Hank, wouldn't put up with Joe Girardi's mismanagement, and would have fired him years ago. But the Yankees won when the man really running the show was Gabe Paul and then Al Rosen, and when it was Gene Michael. In between, when it was The Boss? Do you really want that back? I don't think you do.

There you have it: The top 5 reasons you can't blame Don Mattingly for the Yankees not winning a Pennant from 1982 to 1995.

And yet... They still won a Pennant the year before he arrived, and not again until the year after he left.

Then again, the Philadelphia Phillies won a Pennant in 1993, then called up Mike Lieberthal, then didn't win another until 2008, the year after he left. Like Mattingly in Monument Park, Lieberthal has a plaque in center field, on the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame. And you don't see a blogger in the Delaware Valley writing about The Curse of Lieby. (Though I have found one who, in 2006, wrote about The Curse of Ed Wade, the Phils' GM for much of that period.)

Is The Curse of Donnie Baseball real? Or do the reasons I listed above exonerate Number 23? Decide for yourself.

One thing, though: The Yankees did start winning Pennants again after Mattingly left. They won 6 in the next 8 years.

Would you trade those 6 Pennants and 4 World Championships for one title for Mattingly? As the old saying goes, Sometimes, the best trades are the ones you don't make.

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