The showdown never came. Wade Boggs of the Red Sox tore a hamstring muscle last Wednesday, the night before Don Mattingly of the Yankees arrived in Boston for their anticipated duel for the American League batting title. So Boggs remained in the dugout for the four-game set with his .357 average, while Mattingly finished at .352 after a game try—needing to go 6 for 6 on the final day, he merely went 2 for 5, with a homer, a double and three RBIs. However, the definitive 1986 judgment on Mattingly will not be that he lost the batting title, but rather that he won the unofficial title of best player in baseball.
Mattingly's numbers were staggering: .352, 31 homers, 113 RBIs, 238 hits (to break the Yankee record of 231 set by Earle Combs in 1927) and 53 doubles (to surpass Lou Gehrig's mark of 52 that same year). In the weekend series, Mattingly went 8 for 19 with two doubles, two homers and four RBIs, passing Combs and Gehrig along the way. On Saturday, when he drilled a 92-mph inside-corner fastball by Calvin Schiraldi to the back of the Yankee bullpen for a home run, Mattingly earned a distinction far greater than a second batting title. That 30th homer meant that he had become the first American Leaguer ever to get 230 hits, 100 RBIs and 30 home runs. The triple has been accomplished on six occasions in the NL, but the last time—by Stan Musial—was 38 years ago. Mattingly will also almost certainly win his second Gold Glove at first base.
The best player in baseball. That is no idle claim for the 25-year-old Indianan. A poll of major league players by The New York Times confirmed it. Departing Baltimore manager Earl Weaver called him that, saying, "I've never seen anyone like him." Tiger manager Sparky Anderson seconds Weaver and says, "Mattingly's from another planet." Atlanta general manager Bobby Cox, who has managed in both leagues, says, "He's simply the best." Detroit outfielder Dave Collins says, "It's hard to play the outfield with him hitting, because you find yourself fascinated. You watch him and forget that you're playing against him."
Says Yankee pitcher Bob Tewksbury, "I guess everyone now looks at him the way we, his teammates, have for a long time—with a degree of awe, almost reverence. I love to sit in the dugout and watch his eyes."
Red Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak is an ardent admirer. "The guy's hitting .350, making a million-something dollars a year, his team is 10 games out, they got to their hotel at four in the morning, and he's underneath the stands in the cage at 3:30 in the afternoon," says Hriniak. "Look at the way he plays the game—hitting, baserunning...he's the best first baseman in this league, by far. He's the best. He's the greatest I've ever seen, and he's everything this game should be."
While Mattingly—5'11", 180 pounds, only average speed—doesn't have the tools of, say, Kirk Gibson or Darryl Strawberry, he isn't exactly your basic generic ballplayer, either. He has an exceptionally quick first step for both defense and baserunning. He couldn't have only 10 more strikeouts (76) than homers (66) the last two years without great hand-eye coordination and bat speed.
When Mattingly's season ended Sunday, he had played in every one of the Yankees' 162 games. His 53 doubles made him the first American Leaguer to lead that category three straight years since Tris Speaker did it four years in a row, 1920-23. Mattingly was No. 1 in the AL in hits, slugging (.573), total bases (388) and extra-base hits (86). He was also second in hitting, third in RBIs and third in runs scored with 117. And, says Yankee coach Jeff Torborg, "Once again he led the majors in character."
Mattingly had to bat .422 in September and October just to make the final weekend showdown possible. When the injury to Boggs made his seven-point gap seem insurmountable, the best player in baseball remained unperturbed. Indeed, he tipped his cap to the batting champion. "I said over the winter that until Wade retires, to even think about a batting title, you have to think .350. Well, I got close. That's an accomplishment. I just hope he's healthy for the playoffs, because he plays hard every day. I feel like we're the same in a lot of ways."
Other than a few casual words at first and third base, and a social exchange at the All-Star Game, Mattingly and Boggs hadn't sat down and talked since a spring training dinner with Ted Williams in Clearwater, Fla. (SI, April 14). Last Friday they got together again, this time in the weight room off the Red Sox' clubhouse. In contrast to Mattingly's gracious understanding about Boggs's injury, a New York tabloid had shouted CHICKENED OUT to Boggs in a back-page headline, and so Mattingly was quick to say to Boggs: "If you read one quote that even hints at my questioning you, then it's been twisted or it's a fabrication. You know me. We're friends. If I were you, if I were hurting and had the playoffs to think about, then I'd do the same thing. The team comes first."
Boggs thanked him and said, "We'll both have more batting titles. Besides, World Series come around as often as Halley's Comet, at least in Boston."
The two chatted about many things, including their dinner in March. Mattingly said that Williams persuaded him to be more selective at the plate, especially against lefthanders, and Boggs says he took with him the lesson of hitting the ball "hard up the middle" against lefties. (Significantly, Boggs hit .352 against lefthanders, and Mattingly raised his average against them from .288 in '85 to .358 this year.) They both agreed that the toughest lefthander they face now is Teddy Higuera of the Brewers. The subject of the work ethic also came up.
Said Boggs: "I talk to a lot of players who say, 'Hitting is easy for you.' They think I walk out there and get my hits without any preparation. But to me, batting practice is a time to work on things as if it were a game. Every swing you take in BP should have a purpose."
"Yogi used to tell me he took extra batting practice something like twice in his whole career," said Mattingly, "and both times he was like oh for 30. That was his way, and I don't argue. That's not my way. I feel that when I'm prepared for a game, then I can relax and have fun. I want to improve every day in every facet of the game. I hate to hear that a guy's not a good defensive player. There shouldn't be any bad defensive players, not if they work hard enough. It's as simple as that. There are tons of players who could be a lot better. I'd like to have some of the talent of those guys. Give me their talent and I'll do some really big things."
As for the batting title, Mattingly said, "One guy wins a batting title, one guy wins the MVP, but that doesn't mean they're the only guys to have good years. If Jim Rice wins the MVP, does that mean Joe Carter hasn't had a great year? Of course not. The year Cecil Cooper hit .352 and George Brett hit .390, Cooper didn't lose." And neither did Mattingly this year.
The fans in Boston understood perfectly. On the last day of the season, not once but twice did they rise to give the player from another team—and another planet—a standing ovation.
Boggs, who had to bow out of the duel, and Mattingly resumed last spring's rap session.
Mattingly raised his totals to 31 home runs, 113 RBIs and a record 53 doubles.