If there was ever any doubt that Don Mattingly was cursed, those doubts evaporated in August of 1994.
With just more than a month left in the ’94 season, Mattingly and the Yankees were in cruise control. After play ended on August 11th, the Bombers sat atop the American League with a 70-43 record. The ’94 Yankees averaged 5.9 runs per game, second best in baseball, and the pitching staff had the fourth best ERA in the AL. For the first time in a long time, there was a real buzz in the Bronx. The Yankees were finally on their way to the postseason. Then came the strike.
The strike that ended the 1994 MLB season prevented Donnie Baseball from making his long-awaited playoff debut. After making a handful of appearances during the ’82 campaign, Mattingly had spent 12 full seasons in New York. His teams had often had success (the Yankees won more games in the 1980s than any other franchise), but the postseason eluded the Yankee captain and his teammates.
By 1994, Mattingly had made six All-Star teams, won a batting title, and earned AL MVP honors. Individual achievements, however, were not what Donnie desired. As debilitating back pain threatened to end his career, Mattingly understood that his days in pinstripes were numbered. The strike had taken away an excellent chance to play for the ultimate prize in October, but the Yankees were becoming a great team under the direction of Buck Showalter. If things returned to normal in 1995, Mattingly and the Yankees would be well-positioned to make a title run.
Slow Start, Sour Summer
The Yankees played their first game of the 1995 season on April 26th. The strike had delayed the start of the year, which would be shortened from the usual 162 games to 144. Danny Tartabull paced the Yankee offense with a home run and 3 RBI in the team’s opening game, and the Bombers beat the Texas Rangers 8-6. It was a rare bright spot in an abysmal spring for New York.
The Yankees posted a 10-16 record in May, then followed that up with a pedestrian 13-14 record in June. By the All-Star break, the Yanks were six games under .500 and showing few signs of life. Mattingly and Paul O’Neill both missed games early in the season due to injury, as did pitchers Jimmy Key and Scott Kamieniecki. Key, who was the Yankees’ most consistent starter in ’93 and ’94, made only five starts in 1995 before injuries shelved him for the season. The Bombers were beat up and beaten down. All of the magic from 1994 had seemingly vanished, and the team was barely treading water.
The Yankees managed to recover in July, posting a 17-11 record. For fans, the rebound was evidence that the team could still find its identity and make a playoff push down the stretch. Unfortunately, things fizzled out in August as the Yankees reverted back to their losing ways. While the Bombers managed to string together a three-game winning streak at the end of the month, they were still on the outside of the playoff picture looking in when play began on September 1st.
A Scorching September
Riding the momentum of their late-August victories, the Yankees unexpectedly caught fire in September. The Bombers began the month by winning two of three against both Oakland and Seattle in the Bronx. The Yankees completed the nine game home stand by sweeping the first place Red Sox in convincing fashion. Pettitte, who had been promoted to the starting rotation earlier in the season, pitched exceptionally well in two of those seven victories.
After going 4-3 on a road trip to Cleveland and Baltimore, the Yanks returned to the stadium to face Toronto. David Cone, who had been acquired in July from the Blue Jays, set the tone against his former team. In the opening game of the four-game set, Cone cruised through eight innings allowing only one run. The Yankees won easily thanks to Cone, then went on to sweep the Jays out of New York. A pair of wins agains the lowly Detroit Tigers improved the Yankees September record to 17-5. The Bombers were now firing on all cylinders, and a postseason birth was, miraculously, back within their grasp.
A Place in the Dance
The Yankees began their final road trip of the season by stealing a pair of contests from the Brewers in Milwaukee. Their final three games would be against the Blue Jays in Toronto. With a one-game lead in the AL Wild Card race, the Yankees could clinch a playoff birth by winning out. The team had played stellar baseball for three straight weeks as the players rallied behind a singular mission: win for Donnie. Players and coaches knew that Mattingly didn’t have much time left, and the Yankees wanted their captain to finally play in the postseason. Realizing that goal required three more wins.
Showalter gave Pettitte the ball in the first game of the series, and Andy didn’t disappoint. The rookie went eight innings and surrendered just three runs in a critical Yankee victory. Following Pettitte’s clutch performance, Kamieniecki stifled the Toronto bats and hurled nine masterful innings in the second game of the series. O’Neill gave Kamieniecki all the run support he needed by smashing a three-run homer in the top of the 1st. The Bombers won 6-1.
On October 1st, the final day of the regular season, Mattingly and the Yankees took the field with a chance to earn a place in the playoffs. Ruben Sierra and Bernie Williams both collected two RBI early in the game as the Yankees jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead over Toronto. Fittingly, Donnie Baseball delivered a line drive homer in the 5th that extended the Yankees lead. Mattingly, the team’s undisputed leader, went 2 for 4 and the Bombers coasted to their second straight 6-1 victory.
As the game ended, Donnie knelt on the SkyDome astroturf and pounded the ground with his fist. After years of failure and frustration, the Yankee captain was going to the postseason.
The Yankees earned their first playoff birth in 14 years thanks to a dramatic late-season rally. In their final 31 games, the Bombers went 25-6. They swept Toronto twice in the season’s final three weeks, and also managed to sweep the powerful Red Sox in the midst of a crucial six-game winning streak.
The Yankee starters were incredible in September. Pettitte made six starts during the month, going 5-1. Andy pitched 48 innings in those six starts and posted an impressive 3.38 ERA while holding opponents to a .218 batting average. David Cone and Jack McDowell were also quite formidable during the team’s stretch run. The two veterans won four games apiece in September and helped anchor a staff that was finding its groove. Yankee closer John Wetteland contributed eight saves in September, allowing just two hits and a single run in 10.2 innings of work.
At the heart of the team’s resurgence, however, was none other than Donnie Baseball himself. Mattingly was hobbled by pain for most of the 1995 season, and the results were less than stellar. In his first 100 games of the year, Mattingly batted just .278 with 5 home runs and 37 RBI. After tweaking his approach and figuring out how to get the most out of his ailing back, Mattingly caught fire in his last 28 games. From September 1st to the end of the season, Donnie’s bat came alive. During that stretch he batted .321, hit 2 homers, and collected 12 RBI.
Mattingly’s teammates gave it their all in September to get Donnie into the playoffs. Likewise, Mattingly did everything he could possibly do to get his teammates into the postseason. He played through pain, sacrificing his body for the good of the team. It was a fitting finale to a career defined by hard work, grit, and determination.