Reporters huddled around Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly after he rapped out three hits in a 7-3 win over Detroit last week in New York. But they were looking over their shoulders for Dave Winfield, who had gone 5 for 5. As soon as he appeared, the covey surrounding Mattingly flew to Winfield.
"That's my game, not to be noticed," Mattingly said. "I'm not worried about the lights. I just want to keep doing my job and be consistent."
The unassuming 23-year-old from Evansville, Ind. will never claim to be the straw that stirs the drink. But with the Yankees 21 games out at week's end and the newest Bronx cheer being "Let's go Mets!" Mattingly has stirred the interest of the pinstripe faithful in his first full season. Through Sunday, Mattingly trailed only Winfield (.343 to .370) in the American League batting race. He ranked second in hits (97) and fifth in both doubles (19) and slugging percentage (.544). He also had 12 homers, a team-high 49 RBIs and a budding reputation as a defensive whiz.
That Mattingly, who's ambidextrous, is hitting well comes as no surprise: In the minors, where one teammate tagged him "Battingly," he was never below .314, and last year he batted .283 in 90 big league games. But the 12 home runs have surprised even him. The most he had ever hit in a previous season was 10.
"People from home keep, calling and saying, 'My god, what are you feeding him?' " says Kim, Don's wife. Says Yankee hitting coach Lou Piniella, "He's not a home-run hitter. He's a line-drive hitter with home-run power." Piniella says Mattingly has adjusted his batting mechanics so that he starts with more weight on his back leg and gets a better weight shift. He is also a year smarter and stronger. And hitting in front of Winfield and Don Baylor hasn't hurt, either.
"We haven't found the right way to pitch to him yet," Tiger catcher Lance Parrish says. "When we first saw him last year, he just tried to make contact. He sprayed the ball around. He now seems to be able to drive the ball more. When he's swinging the bat well, he reminds me of George Brett. He adjusts to whatever you throw him."
Mattingly is an oasis of modesty in a desert of high-priced egos, confident without being cocky. "What's the dirt on Mattingly?" a British journalist asked a sportswriter for the sensationalist New York Post last week. "There is none," the writer said. "He's just a nice quiet guy."
"That's confirmation then," the journalist said. "If the Post doesn't have any dirt on him, there isn't any."
Indeed, the most sensational thing about Mattingly is his batting. When he got into slumps in the minors he would study the hitting style of Rod Carew on television to correct his flaws. This season Carew paid Mattingly his biggest compliment when he told him, "Man, you can hit." Mattingly was so excited that after the game he called Kim to tell her about it.
On Mattingly's first day of spring training this year, manager Yogi Berra told him he was going to be the swingman, playing first, right and left and doing a little DHing. "Once you get me in that lineup," Mattingly told Berra, "you're going to have a hard time getting me out." Indeed, he is second in games played with 73. His base salary is $80,000, but barring injury he will easily attain $50,000 in bonuses for playing in at least 110 games.
Mattingly has played all three outfield positions and, after Winfield, is the team's second-best outfielder. Last year he played second base in the Pine Tar Game, one of the very few lefthanders ever to fill that position in the majors. (In Babe Ruth ball, Mattingly played shortstop and third—righthanded. But he switched to his left hand, which he had always used for eating and writing, to enhance his professional prospects.) He's most at home at first, gracefully flicking his glove to snag balls in the dirt. "Before his career is over, he'll win a lot of Gold Gloves," says teammate Steve Kemp.
In April, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner said, "Mattingly is the best young talent in baseball. You can talk all you want about [Met outfielder Darryl] Strawberry. I'll take Mattingly." However, the Yankees waited until the 18th round of the June 1979 draft before selecting Mattingly. The scouts felt he was too slow afoot. Indeed, Mattingly has yet to steal a base in the majors. He had also said that he was going to college. But Mattingly grew up a Yankee fan, and when the club offered him a $22,000 bonus, he took it. After batting .349 in his first professional season, Mattingly, 18, married Kim, 17, who was still in high school.
Don and Kim are renting former Yankee Graig Nettles' house in Norwood, N.J. In the morning they often head right to the deck to sit by the pool, which is their addition to the house. But it isn't what you would call a major addition. They got a good deal on it at K-Mart, and it's about four feet across, 12 inches in the deep end and adorned with teddy bears. "Only one of us can sit in it at a time or all the water comes out," Kim says.
Understandably, Don and Kim are known as "The Kids" to other Yankee couples. One player's wife recently teased, "We used your pool while you were out of town. Everything was fine but we think you should fix the heater."
The Mattinglys have no children, and their cocker spaniel, Honee, is back in Indiana. The house in Norwood is nearly empty except for Don's small but growing collection of other players' bats, including the now hard-to-find Lou Pinieila model, which leans against a living room wall.
He and Kim are planning to go to Florida during the All-Star break to buy furniture. But there's a good chance they will either have to wait until October or do their shopping in San Francisco, the site of the All-Star Game.
Mattingly is winning admirers—and games—with both his bat and his glove.