During my youth, the word “hero” meant one thing to me – a professional baseball player.
My first hero was Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles. I loved Nettles. He was a hard-nosed power hitting third baseman. Nettles led the American league in home runs in 1976. In 1977 and 1978, he earned the Gold Glove for his stellar defense at third base.
I remember being overjoyed watching Game 3 of the 1978 World Series and seeing Graig Nettles making one unbelievable defensive play after another. His great defense secured the win for Ron Guidry and the Yankees and helped turn the series in the Yankees’ favor. (I still think Nettles deserved to be named MVP of the 1978 World Series.)
The greatness of Graig Nettles is never far from my mind when I am playing ball. Even today, as a grown man, I mostly play on the left side of the infield in a men’s softball league. Whenever I’m at third base, I try to summon my “inner Nettles.” I dream of making diving catches and throwing out base runners from across the infield. (Truth be told, that doesn’t happen very much.) (But, we can still dream…)
Graig Nettles, though, wasn’t my only hero.
I remember being crushed when Graig Nettles was traded to the San Diego Padres in 1984. But, it was about that time that the player that most captured the imagination of Yankees fans of that era arrived on the scene – Don Mattingly.
Mattingly also played hard. He was a home-grown hero. In fact, Don Mattingly was the first player I saw go from an untested rookie to a superstar as a Yankee. He was tough. Gritty. Hard-nosed. Don Mattingly exemplified all the attributes one would want in their baseball hero.
I imagine that Don Mattingly was loved by Yankees fans of the 1980’s in the way that fans in the 1950’s or 1960’s loved Mickey Mantle. In the 1980’s Mattingly was, for a time, super human. For a number of years, he was considered the greatest player in baseball:
From 1984 through 1989, Don Mattingly was an American League All-Star.
Between 1984 and 1993, Don Mattingly won nine Gold Glove Awards. Even today, Don Mattingly is considered one of the greatest fielding first basemen of all time.
In 1985, 1986, and 1987, he won the Silver Slugger Award.
In 1984, Mattingly led the American League in hits (207), doubles (44), and batting average (.343).
In 1985, Don Mattingly won the MVP Award on the heels of his .324 batting average as he led the league in doubles (48), total bases (370), and runs batted in (145). He also hit 35 home runs that year.
In 1986, Mattingly was the runner-up in the MVP voting with a .352 batting average, 31 homers and 113 runs batted in. He also led the league in hits (238), doubles (53), and total bases (388).
In 1987, Don Mattingly set records by hitting home runs in eight consecutive games. He also set a record by hitting six grand slams that year.
Growing up, I always wished that I could be a baseball player. As I went into and through my teenage years, if I could have chosen to be any player, it would have been Don Mattingly.
Don Mattingly was great. He was New York’s hero. For many years, he was my hero.
There was nothing he seemingly couldn’t do on a baseball field.
Until he hurt his back.
A back injury robbed Don Mattingly of his greatness. It was sudden too. Seemingly overnight Mattingly went from a superstar to just another ball player.
The back issues robbed Mattingly of his greatness. He no longer drove the ball into gaps. The perennial league leader in doubles, never led the league in that category after 1986. The back pain also robbed Mattingly of his power. After hitting 30 home runs in 1987, Mattingly dropped to only 18 in 1988. He would only hit 20 or more home runs in a season once in the remaining seven years of his career. In four of those years, he didn’t even reach double digits in home runs.
By 1990, Don Mattingly was all-too-ordinary as a baseball player. That year, Donnie Baseball batted only .256. He hit a mere five home runs that year. While he rebounded from this worst year of his career, he never again attained the pinnacle of success he had established in the 1980’s.
After hitting .288 with 7 home runs and just 49 runs batted in in 1995, Don Mattingly’s career came to a close.
An outstanding ballplayer, Mattingly’s overall greatness was cut short because of his back issues. Today, many people feel he doesn’t deserve to be in the Hall-of-Fame because the period of his greatness was just too short lived.
For me, I’m now pushing 50 years-old. I still play in a competitive “over-30” men’s softball league.
Today I realized that, in one sense, at least, I have finally become one of my heroes. Today, I realized that I have become Don Mattingly.
And it’s for all the wrong reasons.
I’m not hitting home runs or driving in runs. I am not hitting the ball into gaps. I’m not collecting Gold Glove Awards or MVP honors. No, it’s the other part of Mattingly’s career that I’m understanding all too well.
For the past week, I haven’t been able to play softball. I hurt my back. I can’t bend well. Sudden movements cause me excruciating pain. I dread sitting because getting up from a chair is torture, yet, at the same time standing brings no relief. I can’t get comfortable. Sleeping isn’t restful.
This past week I have been reminded of the pain that Don Mattingly suffered through for the second half of his career. I’m becoming Don Mattingly, but it’s the wrong part of the Mattingly legend that I am now living.
I’m not a power hitting first baseman. I’m not an MVP. I’m not a potential Hall-of-Famer. Instead I’m just a guy with a painful back.
All of this leaves me with one simple question I keep asking myself…
“Why couldn’t my favorite player have been Cal Ripken, Jr.?”