Sons of 1984
Back in the summer of 1984 baseball fans enjoyed a great season seeing first hand many interesting storylines and developments, such as:
The powerhouse Detroit Tigers, who essentially were a lock for the World Series by mid-April.
The rise of Tony Gwynn and the San Diego Padres.
The rise of Ryne Sandberg and the Chicago Cubs.
The complete dominance of rookie Dwight Gooden and the simultaneous climb in the standings for the New York Mets.
All great storylines, but for a Yankee fan in 1984, we had an even bigger one.
Photo by Colin McConnell/Toronto Star
Two Yankees went head to head with each other for the 1984 Batting Title. In one corner we had superstar Dave Winfield, a tall 6’ 6’’superior athlete taken fourth overall in the 1973 MLB draft and also drafted by NFL, NBA and ABA teams out of the University of Minnesota. Winfield joined the Yankees as a high priced free agent in 1981, and become a stalwart outfielder moving between left field and right field before becoming a mainstay in right field and a middle of the order force at the plate. At 33 years old, he was in his prime.
In the other corner we had a home grown young 23 year old playing in his second season and first as a starter at first base. Don Mattingly, who came into his own a few years after being drafted in 1979, and was passed up by all 30 teams until being selected in the 19th round of the 1979 MLB Draft by the Yankees.
On a nightly basis we got to see the established veteran and the young upstart first baseman battle it out for the Americans League Batting Title.
Mattingly and Winfield were teammates on that 1984 Yankee team that was buried in the standings from the get go as the Tigers started out at 35-5 and never looked back.
There was no wild card in 1984, and the Tigers ran away with the AL East.
Early on in the season, it was Winfield that electrified the fans.
On June 3 Winfield went 5-for-6 against the Blue Jays in Toronto to lift his batting average from .295 to .315.
Two days later Winfield did it again going 5-for-5 pushing his average to .335.
As the dog days of summer bared down on the long season with not a lot to play for, Winfield and Mattingly put on a show.
When Winfield signed his 10 year contract following the 1980 season, he was an established star. Witnessing his 1984 performance was not exactly a surprise. We all knew he was capable of doing so, and had hit above .300 twice in his 6 years in San Diego, and hovered around .300 in his first 3 years in pinstripes.
Mattingly was a different story in that summer of 1984, after all he had only played 98 games in 1982 and 1983 combined. But if you saw him develop in 1983, as I did, you could see his explosive bat developing, especially in 1983 when the Billy Martin led Yankees made a late surge and finished 91-71, with many wins attributed to the contributions of the lefty utility player.
When 1984 rolled around, new manager Yogi Berra made him the starting first baseman, and the rest as they say is history. He hit well in 1983 (.283), but when he was given the job at first base it was as if someone turned on the lights. Almost immediately he began hitting with power to all fields, and very quickly became recognized as an outstanding defensive first baseman. Keep in mind, in 1984, New York City had another superb first baseman playing and the great debate began; who was the better fielder—Don Mattingly or Keith Hernandez?
Many fans would debate that point for years to come.
As the calendar turned to September, Winfield had a small lead over Mattingly of only three percentage points, .352 to .349. Neither player would hit a slump, nor slow down. It all came down to the final day of the season. The last game of a four game series against the great 1984 Tigers, in the Bronx.
The Tigers were setting their rotation up for the playoffs and threw right hander Randy O’Neal against the Yankees in that September 30 day game. The Yankees countered with Lefty Dennis Rasmussen.
The outcome of the game was inconsequential to the 30,602 in attendance, including yours truly. Rasmussen went 7 innings and the Yankees beat the Tigers 9-2.
We were all anxiously anticipating the Mattingly & Winfield at bats.
Mattingly and Winfield, as they did most of 1984, hit third and fourth respectively in the batting order that Sunday afternoon. Mattingly had Winfield protecting him in the order and Winfield had Don Baylor protecting him, both were sure to see some good pitches to hit.
When the batting orders were handed out at home plate, Winfield led Mattingly .3410 to .3395.
Here is how it unfolded.
Mattingly lined a single to right field in the first inning. Winfield grounded into a force out.
Mattingly took the lead .3406 to .3404.
Mattingly added to his lead with a third inning double to the right field corner. Winfield walked.
Mattingly stepped up for his third at bat and drilled another double, his 44th of the season.
Winfield kept pace by legging out an infield single to third base. Winfield never took an at bat off or jogged to first base. Ditto for Mattingly.
Their forth at bats saw them both make outs. It would all come down to their final at bat of the season.
If Winfield got a hit and Mattingly made an out, Winfield would be the winner.
If Mattingly got a hit, he wins.
I remember how the fans were so into it. Many in the stands seemed to be more behind Mattingly because he was the young home grown guy, making much less money, and just seemed to connect with the fans better than the polished Winfield. But make no mistake about it, Winfield was a fan favorite, and no one would have been disappointed if he won, In fact, he would have been celebrated big time.
The Tigers, although trailing the Yankees 9-2, were not going to make it easy for either Mattingly or Winfield, as closer Willie Hernandez took the mound for his post season tune up.
In case you don’t recall, Hernandez won both the AL MVP and Cy Young awards in 1984, saving 32 of 32 games with a 1.92 ERA. He was nasty!
The drama came to a quick end as Mattingly grounded a single off second baseman Scott Earl’s glove securing the batting title with a .343 batting average.
That hit not only won him the batting title but it was also his league-leading 207th hit of the season.
Winfield grounded into a fielders choice, and Mattingly was out at second base.
In a classy move, Berra pinch-ran Scott Bradley for Winfield ensuring both players could come off the field together, earning a very loud and well deserved standing ovation, as they both tipped their caps to all of us in attendance.
The box score would show:
Mattingly 4-5 with 3 runs scored and 1 RBI- .343
Winfield 1-4 with 2 runs scored and 0 RBI – .340
When the ink dried on the season the two Yankee stars left all of us dying for 1985 to start.
Mattingly finished at .343 with 23 HRs and 110 RBI. In 603 at-bats. Mattingly had 207 hits (44 doubles, 2 triples, and 23 HR). He scored 91 runs, walked 41 times and struck out only 33 times. His OPS was .918.
Winfield finished at .340 with 19 HRs and 100 RBI. In 567 at-bats. Winfield had 193 hits (34 doubles, 4 triples, and 19 HR). He scored 106 runs, walked 53 times and struck out only 71 times. His OPS was .908.
The Tigers would end up winning 104 games and steamroll through the playoffs by sweeping the Royals in the ALCS and beating the Padres in 5 in the World Series.
Winfield and Mattingly put on a show that summer of 1984, and remained teammates and good friends for many years to come.