Skip to main content
Original Issue

And May The Best Man Win

Teammates Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly are in a tight battle for the batting crown

David is Goliath. The big guy stands 6'6", bats righthanded, pulls the ball, makes about $1.5 million a year, strides as if he owned the place and spits out half of Kansas's sunflower seed crop. In the other corner is The Kid. He's 5'11", only 23, lefty, a spray hitter earning $130,000 this year, one of the boys and up to snuff.

Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly are the unlikely opponents in the American League batting race, as well as teammates on the New York Yankees. "They're 1 and 1A," says the Yankee batting coach, Lou Piniella. "It doesn't matter which stablemate wins, so long as they flash that number on the tote board after it's over."

What a race they're in! In seven games last week, Sunday to Sunday, the lead changed hands 11 times, sometimes during games. At week's end Winfield was hitting .351812 and Mattingly .350806. Their nearest pursuer, Eddie Murray of Baltimore, was batting a mundane .322. The feats of 1 and 1A require the special perspective of their manager, Yogi Berra. "Three-fifty," mused Berra one day last week. "That's a lot of hits."

Those are hard .350s, too. Mattingly has 20 home runs and 89 RBIs, and following games last weekend against California, in which he singled, doubled and homered twice, he led the league in slugging percentage at .548. Winfield, sixth in slugging, has 16 homers and 81 RBIs. Together, they've helped turn the Yankee season around, pulling the team up from last on May 20 to fourth in the AL East.

With 27 games left, Mattingly, who has 174 hits, and Winfield, who has 165, could become the first Yankees since Bobby Richardson in 1962 to have 200 hits, and either one could become only the sixth Yankee ever to win a batting title. To the accompaniment of harps, the five previous winners are Babe Ruth...Lou Gehrig...Joe DiMaggio...Mickey Mantle and—who let him in?—Snuffy Stirnweiss.

Neither Winfield nor Mattingly was a preseason candidate to win a batting title. Winfield had a career average of .284 for his 11 seasons, never batting higher than .308. Mattingly, who hit .283 as a rookie in '83, wasn't even assured of a regular job.

Winfield got off to a slow start, spending 15 days on the disabled list with a hamstring injury and sinking as low as .242 on May 7. "When I came off the DL," says Winfield, "[Dave] Kingman had like 11 homers and 27 RBIs, and I was sitting at 2 and 5. I had nothing left to shoot for but the batting title. When I started to get serious I was around .269, and I said, 'Let me get out of here.' Then it was .270, .280, .290. I skipped right over the .300s, spent a few days in the teens, missed the 20s...." On July 5, after a month-long 58-for-121 (.429) tear, Winfield reached a high of .377.

Winfield says he became a better hitter because of an almost mystical weight/exercise program known as Sagekinetics, developed by a former minor league pitcher named Steve Sagedahl. The Sage-kinetic machines simulate the batting and throwing motions of baseball, building both strength and speed.

Winfield thinks it's amazing he's done so well, considering his ongoing feud with a certain owner who shall remain nameless. "He tried to trade me [to Texas] and assassinate my character," Winfield says. "I have had to fight adversity and animus, and I've answered: one, by the way I play, two, by speaking up when nobody else would, and three, by taking him to court and winning the money he owes the [David M.] Winfield Foundation. But none of this has been a motivating factor."

Winfield's real motivation is that he feels he has never gotten his due. For someone who puts up some great numbers, plays very hard, gives a lot of time to the public and stands up to an obnoxious owner, he has remained remarkably unpopular. "I know people are rooting for The Kid," says Reggie Jackson, who likes to keep an eye on his old team. "I hear people knocking Dave because he's sacrificed his home-run power for his average. But the man has over 80 RBIs. The only thing you can knock him for is that he's never won."

The Kid carries no such burdens. In fact, he's almost carefree about the batting race. "I think it's kind of neat," says Mattingly, "the two of us fighting for the title. Just think, we don't have to check the papers to see which one is ahead, not as if it was Dave and, say, Kent Hrbek. I like it this way."

Mattingly simply loves to hit. He went to Puerto Rico over the winter because he was a little disappointed that he tailed off at the end of '83, and he won the winter league's batting championship with a .368 average. He and Piniella practice together frequently, and Friday night they could be seen in the runway behind the dugout, working on mechanics.

"I just wasn't feeling right," says Mattingly, who was batting .350 at the time. "Lou got me to put a little more weight on my back foot and stay down." The next night, Mattingly touched the Angels' Geoff Zahn for an opposite-field single, an opposite-field double and an impressive home run into the Anaheim Stadium terrace in rightfield, all on first pitches.

Mattingly's power has been a revelation, even to him. "I never hit more than 10 homers in a season, in any league," he says. "I think it's amazing enough that I'm going for a batting title. But for me to be up there in slugging percentage is even more incredible." Actually, Mattingly is proudest that he has liberated the Yankee farm system: The team is no longer afraid to bring up its good young prospects. One of them, in fact, outfielder Vic Mata, is challenging Winfield and Mattingly at .339, although he has only 62 at bats.

Winfield regained the batting lead in the first inning Sunday, singling after Mattingly flied out. Their race was briefly interrupted by a beanball war and a fifth-inning fight, and if either player was worried about protecting himself, he didn't show it. Winfield took responsibility for the strongest Angel, Brian Downing, and Mattingly ended up on the bottom of a pile. In the sixth, Mattingly dusted himself off, then hit a Ron Romanick pitch over the rightfield fence, which started the winning rally in the Yankees' 5-3 victory and also gave him the batting lead. That lasted only a few moments, though, because Winfield followed with a hustling double to left.

Both Winfield and Mattingly want the title, but while Winfield wants it badly, Battingly—as he is coming to be known—wants it goodly. "If I don't win it," he says, "I won't be disappointed, because I didn't expect it and I'll know I had a very good year. I'll be very happy for Dave. Just so long as one of us wins it."

Winfield is trying to steer clear of the entire subject. "I don't like to get into it," he said Sunday. "With the pressures of the New York media, I don't think it's going to be a nice situation at the end."

Winfield has experience on his side, and if he gets hot again, well, nobody gets hotter, even if he does have a sore left wrist. Mattingly will have the benefit of seeing more righthanders the last month, and he's the better contact hitter. Nobody on the Yankees will say it, but there is a slight pull for Mattingly. One observer says, "Mattingly might have a great game, but if the team lost, he won't do anything but throw his glove in the locker. Winfield, if he does well in a loss, will sometimes shrug his shoulders as if to say, 'Hey, it wasn't my fault.' "

Says outfielder Steve Kemp, who's very close to Mattingly, "I hope it ends in a tie, I really do. I know most people are rooting for Don, but that's because he's sort of the underdog. Who knows? Someday he might be the veteran fighting it out with The Kid for the batting title, and people will be pulling against him."

One of them is an expensive thoroughbred and the other a quarter horse, but they're 1 and 1A.



Winfield (.351812) and Mattingly (.350806) have been the league's two top hitters since July 16.