The 1984 baseball season is best known for the remarkable wire-to-wire performance by the American League pennant winners the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers then went on to beat the San Diego Padres easily in the World Series completing one of the most dominant team performances in recent baseball history. But as Detroit easily breezed to the pennant there was a dramatic and closely fought battle for the American League batting title. So close was this contest that it was fought by two teammates who batted third and fourth in the same lineup.
Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly, although both Yankees, were as different as one could imagine. Big Dave was the veteran, a star in his own right. Donnie (soon to be known as “Donnie Baseball”) was a second-year player trying to make his mark. Winfield, who had been acquired by the Yankees in 1981 in another splashy free agent signing by New York owner George Steinbrenner, was already a headline performer. As a four-time all-star in the National League, Winfield was expected to lead the Yankees to Championships throughout the 1980’s, but he got off to a shaky start when disputes arose with Steinbrenner regarding aspects of his contract. That combined with Winfield’s dismal performance in the 1981 World Series—an .045 average in a crushing defeat to the Dodgers—did not endear Big Dave to the New York fan base. Mattingly on the other hand was a fresh face having been brought up mid-season in 1983 and was showing great promise. It did however require the genius of Yankee manager and all-around sage Yogi Berra to believe in the young phenom and insert Mattingly as the Yankee first baseman right from the start of the season. Donnie Baseball would remain the Yankee first baseman and unrivaled fan favorite for more than a decade. And even their batting styles could not be more different. Winfield was a tall and lanky right-handed free swinger with tremendous power. Mattingly was a compact lefty hitter who stayed back on the ball and could send sizzling line drives to the gaps. It would be an intriguing and exciting contest.
As the year began Mattingly got off to a great start but Winfield struggled with a ham string injury. They both shifted into high gear by June when Winfield had a 17-game hitting streak and Mattingly countered with a pair of five-hit games. By the All-Star break Big Dave, who had cut down on his swing, surged ahead with a scintillating .370 average as Donnie Baseball trailed at .330. Through the dog days of August Mattingly slowly cut the deficit and with a five-hit performance against Seattle on August 25 he moved ahead of Winfield .352 to .350. September saw the duo continue to go neck and neck so the competition would ultimately come down to the last day of the season.
On that warm September day, the last game of the season, Mattingly had definitely emerged as the fan favorite even though he trailed Winfield .341 to .339. Winfield’s continuing spats with Steinbrenner took its toll and, although Big Dave was about to finish one of his best seasons, the fans actually booed him when he came to plate. With all that good karma and a little bit of luck Donnie Baseball slashed his way to a 4 for 5 day, pushing his average to .343. Big Dave slumped to a 1 for 4 settling at .340 giving the batting crown to Mattingly. After the game in a classy display of sportsmanship the two teammates tipped their hats to the fans and posed for pictures.
Mattingly and Winfield would continue to be the heart of the Yankee team through the late 1980’s, both putting up impressive offensive numbers and playing fine defense. But the best New York could finish during those years was second place which they did in ’85 and ’86. Ironically the careers of both players later suffered setbacks due to back injuries. Winfield missed the entire 1989 season with back surgery and Mattingly was hampered by continuing back problems starting in 1990.
Big Dave finally escaped the wrath of Steinbrenner when he was traded to the California Angels in 1990 and then promptly put together a fine year winning the Comeback Player of the Year. He had a near MVP season with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 and redeemed his post season failures by helping to propel the Jays to their first Championship ever. His 11th inning double knocked in the winning run in game six.
Donnie Baseball never fully recovered from his back woes but continued his fine hitting, though without the power numbers he was accustomed to. His luck seemed to fade as did his power stroke and his dream for World Series play was dashed in his finally two years. First in 1994 when the Yankees’ first-place team was shut down by a late season labor dispute that cancelled the post season. Then in 1995, though still struggling with his bad back, Mattingly had a terrific divisional series batting .417 with 6 RBI’s but was stymied by the Edgar Martinez buzzsaw as the Seattle Mariners defeated the Yankees three games to two.
Although Mattingly preserved on that September afternoon in 1984 it seemed that Winfield would eventually come out ahead. In even another irony intertwining their two careers, both Winfield and Mattingly were eligible for Hall of Fame voting in the same year 2001. Big Dave, well respected, with his long career and strong power numbers, was easily inducted. But not so with Mattingly. Although he will always be tops among the fans in Yankee land, Donnie Baseball, still awaits his call to Cooperstown.
References: Baseball-Reference.com, The Baseball Almanac, The Yankee Encyclopedia 4th Edition,
New York Yankees Seasons of Glory
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