New York Yankees icon Don Mattingly is entering his 14th season of Hall of Fame eligibility this year. As a lifetime Pinstriper whose jersey number is retired alongside inner-circle players like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, it might be a surprise to some that Mattingly isn't in the Hall already. Donnie Baseball certainly seemed to be on a HOF trajectory early in his career, but back injuries plagued him as he exited his prime and forced him to hang up his cleats at just 34 years old.
The former first baseman received a solid 28.2 percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot back in 2001, but has never come close to duplicating that kind of support in the many years since. His vote total has ebbed and flowed in the teens over the last decade, dropping to 13.2 percent in 2013. Mattingly is in real danger this year of not getting even the five percent of votes he needs to stay on the BBWAA ballot for a 15th and final time.
Why he's a Hall of Famer
Mattingly was the face of the New York Yankees during the 1980s and was arguably the best all-around first baseman of his era. His nine Gold Glove awards are the most ever for an AL first baseman and second all-time to his crosstown rival Keith Hernandez. He retired a .307/.358/.471 hitter and was the seventh-most valuable player in baseball during his peak years (1984-1989). Four of the guys ahead of him on that list are in the Hall of Fame, and the two who aren't--Tim Raines and Alan Trammell--probably should be.
In Mattingly's first full season with the Yankees, 1984, he led the league in hits (207), doubles (44) and batting average (.343), and earned his first of six consecutive All-Star Game bids. He followed that year with an even more impressive sophomore campaign, mashing 35 home runs and plating 145 RBIs on his way to the 1985 AL Most Valuable Player award. He would have made it two MVPs in a row in 1986 but for Roger Clemens and his 24 wins. Mattingly had far and away his best season in 1986, posting career-bests across his slash line (.352/.394/.573) thanks to a league-leading 238 hits and 53 doubles.
Despite an off-field rift with George Steinbrenner and the emergence of back issues that would eventually cut his career short, Mattingly continued to put up impressive numbers on offense through the end of the decade, hitting .313/.360/.498 from 1987-1989.
Why writers won't vote for him
Mattingly didn't have the longevity necessary to make it into the Hall. Following the prime years, Donnie Baseball fell apart. He was able to reach the 1,000-run and -RBI plateaus before retiring, but he didn't come close to any of the other counting stats on offense that have become Hall standards for excellence. Of the nine first basemen elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA since the dawn of the live-ball era (1920), Hank Greenberg's 331 home runs are the fewest. Mattingly finished his career with just 222.
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The mustachioed lefty came out slugging in his early years at first base, averaging 27 home runs a year in his first six full seasons, but chronic back problems ate away at his power in the 90's. Mattingly reached double-digit home runs in just two of his final six seasons, topping out at 17 in 1993.
While his back woes are legend, Mattingly also had the worst timing of any player to spend his entire career in the Bronx. The longest World Series drought in franchise history is 14 years, which came between 1982-1995. Those years also happen to coincide exactly with Mattingly's playing career. Not only did the Yankees fail to make the Fall Classic during that time, the club also made just one playoff appearance overall, losing to the Seattle Mariners in the 1995 ALDS.
While fellow Yankees like Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte have glowing postseason resumes to bolster their Hall of Fame candidacies, Mattingly has all of 25 plate appearances to his name. He hit an impressive .417/.440/.708 with a home run and four doubles in that series--no small feat for a guy about to step into retirement--but no one is going to make a meaningful HOF case off a sample so small. No one iss going to penalize Mattingly for his lack of postseason reps, he just doesn't get the bump that players like Jack Morris get.
It's sad to think that had he hung around as a bench player with the Yankees for one more season he would have taken home a World Series trophy. A championship probably would not have helped his HOF candidacy much, but it would have at least made for a better send-off.