In my last post I mentioned how the 1976 AL Batting Race came down to two different sets of teammates whose teams played each other during the last series of the season. In my opinion it was arguably the most exciting batting race that I knew of. Well folks, I believe that the American League Batting race of 1984 comes in at a close second. Why? It involves my hometown team and two of my favorite players of all time: Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly.
The 1984 New York Yankees team was in flux. Veterans Craig Nettles and Rich "Goose" Gossage from the Yankees glory years of the late 1970's had moved on to San Diego. New manager and Yankee legend Yogi Berra had the unenviable task of replacing another Yankee legend in the form of Billy Martin. The team was a mixture of veterans and young players and coming off of a strong 1983 season with a record of 91-71, the sky was the limit. Now, at the start of the 1984 season, no one expected the Detroit Tigers to start the season with a 35-5 record. In an era without Wild Card teams, this left the rest of the pack in the dust to play out how the rest of the American League East would end up. Though the Yankees would finish in third place with a respectable 87-75 record, the bright spot for the team was the battle for the AL batting title between veteran outfielder Dave Winfield and up and coming first baseman Don Mattingly.
Winfield was in the middle of (the then record) 10-year $23-million dollar contract signed during the 1980-1981 offseason after having played his first eight seasons with the San Diego Padres. Mattingly had been a mid-season call up in 1982 and played in 91 games in 1983. The 1984 season would be his first full season in the majors and gave us Yankee fans a glimpse of what Donnie baseball would bring to the team.
Winfield would start the season battling a hamstring injury and a horrible slump to eventually reaching the .370 plateau in the month of July. At around the same time Mattingly seemed to make the most of his opportunity and was cruising along near the .350 mark. By September, both teammates traded the batting lead among themselves during the weeks leading up to the end of the season.
By the time September 30th rolled around, the race was still tight with Winfield at .341 and Mattingly trailing at .339. On the last game of the regular season against the Detroit Tigers, Mattingly went 4-5 with two doubles, three runs scored and one RBI to finish the season at .343 while Winfield went 1-5 with two runs scored and ended at .340 crowning Don Mattingly as the American League batting champion.
I remember reading the papers at the time and feeling as if there was some kind of division in terms of who to root for. I understand that people have their favorite players on a team but it seemed that the majority of fans pulled behind Mattingly over Winfield. I'm not saying that Winfield wasn't a fan favorite in his 10 seasons with the Yankees. Far from it. God knows he was loved for in the very least just putting up with the Boss all those years. Mind you, this wasn't the grandfatherly Steinbrenner that people grew to love. No, this was the nasty Steinbrenner who due to his issues with Winfield would get himself suspended for his association with Howard Spira in trying get information to use against Winfield.
Maybe the fans just leaned in favor of the young player over the veteran. I should know, I had a "Hitman" framed poster on my wall of a clean shaven Don Mattingly dressed in a white pinstriped suit with a black shirt and holding a black baseball bat in a style reminiscent of how 1930's gangster would hold his Tommy-gun with his guitar case full of baseballs. Then again, I traveled on numerous trains and buses to get to Kings Plaza Mall (from Astoria) just so I can meet Dave Winfield in person and get his autobiography signed for me and my neighbor Anne who was a lifelong Yankees fan (May she always rest in peace). By the way, I still have the poster and the book.
In the end, here are the final statistics for both players:
Mattingly: .344 with 23 HRs and 110 RBI. In 603 at-bats, Mattingly had 207 hits (44 2B/2 3B/23 HR) with 91 runs scored, 41 walks and 33 strikeouts. His OPS was .918 (.381 OBP%/.537 SLG%)
Winfield: .340 with 19 HRs and 100 RBI. In 567 at-bats, Winfield had 193 hits (34 2B/4 3B/19 HR) with 106 runs scored, 53 walks and 71 strikeouts. His OPS was .908 (.393 OBP%/.515 SLG%).
On a side note, allow me a small look into how much things have changed in Baseball from then to now. In the September 10, 1984 issue of Sports Illustrated, an article by Steve Wulf named And May the Best Man Win, Mattingly attributes his power surge to working on his mechanics with hitting coach Lou Piniella. Now fast forward 25 years to Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays who attributes his newly found success and power surge at the plate to hitting coach Duane Murphy. The difference? Where people took Mattingly's statements at face value in the 1980's, some people today continue to doubt Batista's accomplishments due to the effect of the Steroid Era on Baseball.
In the end, Yankee fans were witnesses to one of the most exciting and close batting races in history.
For Further Reading:
- Click Here to access Dave Winfield's career statistics from Baseball Reference.com
- Click Here to access Don Mattingly's career statistics from Baseball Reference.com
- Click Here to access Steve Wulf's article And May the Best Man Win from Sports Illustrated dated September 10, 1984 from the SI Vault website
- Click Here to access Ira Berkow's article It's Two For the Crown from the New York Times dated August 20, 1984.