My weekend was winding down so nicely. I went for a hike with my wife and dog in NJ today, came home, had a good dinner, and settled down in front of the computer to tie up some loose ends for work tomorrow when this story caught my eye. Mattingly vs. Hernandez. It's been 10 years at least since I've had this argument with a delusional Mets fan, and my blood still boils whenever it's brought up.
Before I get into the particulars of the argument, let me paint a picture for you. I was born in 1976, moved to NJ in December of that year and spent my early, early years watching the Phillies with my father. They won it all in 1980, Michael Jack Schmidt and Psycho Steve Carlton were household names, the Yankees were hated. At the age of 6 I started sneaking into the kitchen and tuning in channel 11 to watch the Yankees on a 12-inch black and white television. Maybe I was a rebel, maybe I didn't like the fact that my dad's favorite team was a winner, maybe I was destined to back the underdog. Who knows? I was 6 years-old, there probably wasn't any logic behind it, but I watched the circus that was the New York Yankees every night. The next year a rookie came up for the Bombers, a rookie who would not only cement my identity as a Yankee fan, but convert my father, a lifelong Phillies fan, into a Yankee fan.
In 1984 Mattingly out-dueled hired-gun Dave Winfield for the batting title and finished 5th in MVP voting. (This also spurred the best baseball card of the decade. See photo). In 1985 he won the MVP with the best offensive season of the decade and finished in the top 15 on 4 other occasions. These numbers were all great, but you have to realize what was going on around him, and around New York at the time to fully understand what it was like to be a Yankee fan during this time. The Mets were THE team in New York. I was two years old when the Yanks last won a World Series, in the mid-late eighties they were the height of futility. Lavishing mediocre talent with huge contracts. Drawing marquis names who never really fit. Steinbrenner meddling like never before, nor since.
On a personal level, I was a boy just beginning to play baseball who idolized Mattingly and was surrounded by Mets fans. Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Mookie Wilson, Lenny Dykstra, Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez, in that order, were names that were thrown in my face. Being a Yankee fan caused many fights for me during those years, defending Don Mattingly at Grove Street Park became a daily ritual (Certain Mets fans still cringe when they see me on the street). The life of a Yankee fan was much different during those days, the seats were empty, the team riddled with problems, and the Mets fans were merciless. Nowadays they love pointing fingers at the smug, spoiled Yankee fans. How quickly they forget what they were like 20 years ago. Riding high on their 1 ring. A ring won because Bill Buckner couldn't field a routine ground ball and Calvin Sciraldi couldn't hold his mud.
But I digress, any Yankee fan who lived through those lean years has deserved every last moment of the current dynasty, and I do believe it is still ongoing. One man is more responsible for this dynasty than any other, and that man is Don Mattingly. When Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter joined the team they had an ailing, waning Mattingly to show them the ropes, and he showed them the right way to play. He instilled in them the work ethic needed to succeed and the professionalism to do it with grace. Derek Jeter would not be the player he is today if not for Don Mattingly's influence early in his career. This is the beginning of the argument for Mattingly over Hernandez, but it is nowhere near the end.
Mattingly worked hard, Hernandez partied hard. Mattingly was the best player in the league for a 6-year period, Hernandez was a sour-puss who smoked in the dugout. Mattingly let his actions do the talking, Hernandez talks with a lisp. Mattingly will be remembered as one of the best Yankees ever, Hernandez will be remembered as the guy who insisted on having one foot in foul territory when holding a runner on first. There was a "Don Mattingly Day" at Yankee Stadium, there was a Keith Hernandez episode of "Seinfeld" in which he played himself, a jackass (see photo). Hernandez was a cog in one of the most talented teams every assembled. Much like Gary Carter, he was along for the ride in 1986, and much like Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden, he was wearing the conductor's hat when the runaway train fueled by cocaine ran off the tracks. Don Mattingly overshadowed future hall-of-famers Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield, shaming them with his clutch performances.
Based on stats alone, Mattingly accomplished more than Hernandez in three less years. He had more homeruns, a higher career average, more RBIs, more doubles, the list goes on. They both won 1 MVP, both playing for teams that didn't make the playoffs. If you look at the numbers, it's a no-brainer that Mattingly was the better player, so the argument Mets' fans make is that Hernandez won two rings. The counter-argument is that Hernandez won those two rings because he was surrounded with exceptional talent. He wasn't the driving force behind either of those teams. He wasn't the best player on the team, he wasn't the leader. He was along for the ride. Giving Hernandez the nod over Mattingly because he played WITH better players is ludicrous.
Unfortunately, neither player is likely to make the Hall of Fame any time soon, Mattingly because he didn't play long enough, Hernandez because he wasn't good enough. The story that got me started on this rant was ostensibly about which player was the better defensive first baseman. Again, my vote goes to Mattingly, but they were both great defensive first basemen. There's no denying that. In my mind, that's where the similarities end.