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Don Mattingly got closer to World Series, but no cigar

Don Mattingly, who played during a comparatively lean

Don Mattingly, who played during a comparatively lean time for the Yankees, came a bit closer to a World Series appearance as a coach, but fell short of a championship once again. Credit: AP

Back then, uniform pants clung tight to a baseball player's legs and stopped no lower than the ankle.

Back then, if you drank enough gallons of Dellwood milk, you could earn free tickets to the big stadium in the Bronx.

Back then, there was Don Mattingly.

To say Mattingly played in the Yankees' lean years would be unfair to lean. Compared with the success of the Yankees before and after, the Don Mattingly Era was fat-free, gluten-free, had zero trans fat and no sugar added.

And now, 18 years after he last swung a bat in the bigs, and six years after he left the Pinstripes of the Bronx behind for the palm trees of Southern California, "Donnie Baseball" missed out again. But, hey, losing in Game 6 of the NLCS is as close as he's ever been to the World Series.

That he reached this point as the 52-year old manager of the Dodgers rather than a 30-something player for the Yankees is, for people of a certain generation, both uplifting and a sad reminder of his status as a Shakespearean tragic hero in this town.

This is not to proclaim Mattingly as the next great baseball manager; he's shown flaws. This is about, for Yankees fans now in their mid-30s to early 40s, seeing Mattingly getting close to baseball's final set of games.

In the mid-1980s right on through to his last season in 1995, Mattingly was the best -- some say the only -- reason to head up to the Stadium to watch the Yankees. Sure there was Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield, but this was Mattingly. The homegrown Yankee. The everyman. "Donnie Baseball."

As back injuries began to take their toll on Mattingly in the 1990s, he became that much more of a tragic figure. Could it be that the best Yankee of this generation would never get an October to call his own? The Yankees' postseason genealogy of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Jackson, Jeter, Rivera feels incomplete with Mattingly, doesn't it? Like there's a chunk of time missing.

The current generation of Yankees fans -- the ones who came of age with Derek Jeter and the five World Series titles and truly believe playoff games come pre-printed on the pocket schedules they get in spring training -- may find this hard to fathom. But, it's true. There was a time when the outfield seats were empty. A time when drawing 2.5 million fans in a season would be considered a coup, let alone the 3.5 million the team has averaged since 1996.

The peak attendance during Mattingly's 14 years with the Yankees came in 1988 when 2,633,701 fans came to the ballpark. The Yankees went 85-76 that year, good for fifth place out of seven teams in the AL East. That was the fifth of six straight All-Star seasons for Mattingly.

For all that Mattingly meant to Yankees fans in the 1980s and '90s, he deserved at least one October.

It came in 1995, Mattingly's final season. The Yankees went 22-6 in September and earned the first wild-card playoff spot on the final day. When Pat Kelly caught the last out in a force play at second base (from shortstop Tony Fernandez), Mattingly fell to one knee on the turf in Toronto's SkyDome. Collectively, Yankees fans, wherever they were, rose to their feet.

The Yankees lost to Ken Griffey Jr. and the Mariners in that ALDS, 3-2, after taking a 2-0 lead. Mattingly left the sport that offseason. He didn't "officially" retire until January 1997, three months after the Yankees won the World Series with Tino Martinez at first base. That was the Yankees' first title since 1978. Coincidentally, the Yankees drafted Mattingly in 1979.

"I wasn't cheated because I chose the road," Mattingly said at his official retirement ceremony. "Very honestly, I would do it again. Even if I knew they were going to win. I know I did the right thing."

Mattingly spent seven seasons as a spring training instructor for the Yankees. In 2004, he became the Yankees' hitting coach. Of course, the Yankees went to the World Series in 2003. (They lost to the Marlins.) Mattingly held that position for three seasons, then became Joe Torre's bench coach for the 2007 season. No World Series appearances then either. He was a finalist that offseason for Yankees manager, the job instead going to Joe Girardi. Mattingly followed Torre to the Dodgers . . . and Girardi and the Yankees won the 2009 World Series.

In April 1997, Mattingly was in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium helping to raise championship banner No. 23, one he was not a part of winning. For many, it reeked of unfairness. That he's not in the Hall of Fame carries a similar odor for this niche group. (This is Mattingly's 14th year of eligibility and his highest vote total was 28.2 percent in 2001.)

Whether or not he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame is a different debate. For now, most would settle for Donnie Baseball making it to a World Series.

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