Hall of Famer Ted Williams has always said that hitting a baseball not quite three inches in diameter with a bat 2 inches at its widest point is the most difficult feat in sports. Even the game's best hitters succeed only about 30 percent of the time. The key to hitting is the ability to adjust to whatever kind of pitcher is working that day -- the fireballer whose arm has the velocity of a rifle, the breaking-ball maestro whose ``money pitch'' drops like an anvil, or the junk thrower who changes speeds so often a batter sometimes can't relocate his timing in a week.
Even though he has only played two full major-league seasons, first baseman Don Mattingly of the New York Yankees has firmly established himself as such a hitter -- as well as a key to his team's hopes of dethroning Toronto as the American League East champion this season. In baseball parlance, Mattingly has no holes at the plate -- no weakness that can be consistently exploited. He also has the ability to hit to all fields, and to hit with power.
The signs of a good hitter are there for everyone to see: patience; a quick bat; the ability to pick up the ball the instant it's thrown; a level swing at the point of contact; and the nerve to take a fastball inside and not give ground on the next pitch. Yet despite his minor-league averages like .349, .358, and .340, a lot of scouts were turned off by his lack of foot speed. Of course, at that time he was primarily an outfielder, where the ability to chase down balls hit in the gaps is so important.
Maybe, too, scouts misread his quietness for a lack of aggressiveness. I'm not sure it was any different at first with the Yankees, except that once they got a close-up of his swing in spring training, they knew they'd have to find a spot for him somewhere.
After being called up for a few games at the end of the 1982 season, Mattingly made the 1983 Yankee team, was optioned to Columbus shortly after the season started, then recalled on June 20 when Bobby Murcer retired. Don wound up appearing in 91 games for New York that year, showing promise with a .283 average. But no one was really quite prepared for the explosion that occurred the next two seasons.
In 1984, Mattingly led the league in batting (.343), hits (207), and doubles (44), hit 23 home runs, and drove in 110 runs. Then last year he hit .324, increased his home run output to 35, led the league again in doubles (48) and in game-winning RBIs (21), led the majors with 145 runs batted in, earned league MVP honors, and was named by The Sporting News as the Major League Player of the Year.
Despite his increased power figures, however, Don remains basically a hitter rather than a slugger.
``Mattingly is still not what you would call a home run hitter,'' explained Lou Piniella, former Yankee batting coach and present manager. ``He's what you call a line-drive hitter with power. Except in certain game situations that demand it, he almost never goes up there thinking long ball, only base hit.
``Two years ago we adjusted his batting mechanics so that he gets a better weight shift and increased power by hitting more off his back leg,'' Piniella continued. ``But it probably would have happened anyway, because every year I've known him he's gotten smarter. Even though Don won a batting championship in '84, he still got into the cage as often as he could last year and worked as hard as anybody.''
Mattingly is so quiet compared with most players that his inner toughness seldom shows. Still, nobody makes more than 200 hits two years in a row without being aggressive.
Hitting isn't an exact science: What works for one man may not pay off for another. Stan Musial stayed coiled up so long before unlocking his body that pitchers used to say he swung at them from around corners. Joe DiMaggio had such a wide stance and stood so far from the plate that he looked like a sucker for an outside pitch -- until someone threw him one. Rod Carew was so intent on taking away the pitcher's edge that he seldom gave him the same body target twice in a row, at times using four different stances in one plate appearance.
When Mattingly was in the minors and found himself in a batting slump, he'd try to catch an Angel game on TV so he could study Carew's swing and balance. Then he'd go to the batting cage the next day and try to put those principles into practice. One of his drills was make sure he was swinging all the way through every pitch.
To speed his improvement, the left-handed-hitting Mattingly played winter ball three years ago in Puerto Rico. ``I figured the extra work would help me, but I never expected to see so much left-handed pitching,'' Don said. ``However, having the ball thrown at me from that angle so many times was just what I needed. Before that I'd had trouble adjusting to southpaws. After what I learned in Puerto Rico, they've never seemed as tough.''
Mattingly is probably at the same point in his career that Kansas City's George Brett was in 1979, the year before Brett made his run at a .400 batting average, eventually finishing at .390.
Don is comfortable with himself at the plate. He's been around long enough to know the pitchers. He's secure in the knowledge that he's going to play regularly, even if he's coming off a couple of days in which he didn't get the ball out of the infield. And as a drawing card, he gives the Yankees the young star they need to counter the Mets' crowd-pleasing tandem of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry.
Mattingly is the one player on the Yankees whose name Piniella knows he can pencil in on his lineup card every day and forget about. And unlike Reggie Jackson, his predecessor as the team's big hitter and gate attraction, Don will never upset teammates by claiming to be ``the straw that stirs the drink.''