Don Mattingly was the captain of the New York Yankees and wore the Yankee jersey with pride from 1982 until 1995. And then he became a respected coach for the Bronx Bombers under Joe Torre before donning Dodger Blue as a coach and now a manager.
Octavio Dotel broke into the bigs in 1999. Since then he has played for the Mets, Astros, A’s, Yankees, Royals, Braves, White Sox, Pirates, Dodgers, Rockies and Blue Jays. During his 13-year career, six of those franchises went to the World Series.
The amazing thing to me is that neither them has ever participated in a single World Series. And for the life of me, I can’t determine who has had worse luck.
The case for Don Mattingly’s luck being worse
When a player logs in 14 seasons for the Yankees, it can be safe to assume that he will experience at least one trip to the World Series. Stars like Dave Righetti and Dave Winfield, who toiled through the fruitless 1980s in the Bronx, played in the 1981 Series. So did Bobby Murcer, who just missed being part of the great Yankees teams of the 1960s and was stuck in San Francisco and Wrigley Field when the Yankees won three straight pennants and a pair of titles between 1976 and 1978.
But amazingly, Mattingly’s career perfectly avoided three different periods of Yankee history where he could have participated in a World Series as a player, coach or manager.
Mattingly arrived as a September call-up in 1982, when the Yankees were still the defending American League Champions. Veterans of recent Yankees World Series Championships like Willie Randolph, Graig Nettles, Lou Piniella, Ron Guidry and Rich Gossage were his teammates. Participants of the 1981 World Series like Tommy John, Winfield, Righetti, Murcer and Oscar Gamble were also still there.
But two big names were not there: Thurman Munson, who died in 1979 and Reggie Jackson, who departed for Anaheim before the 1982 season began. The team without the Captain and Mr. October seemed to be a hollow facsimile of the Bronx Zoo years. And the 1980s brought about the worst decade of Yankees baseball since before the arrival of Babe Ruth.
The 1980s were an era when George Steinbrenner’s control of the team led to his trying to replicate the chaos of the 1978 season over and over again. He would spar with his biggest players and replace managers in midstream, hoping to catch lightning like he did the year Bucky Dent broke the Red Sox hearts. The result was an era of incomprehensible instability.
When Mattingly made his debut, Clyde King was the manager. He was the third Yankees manager in the 1982 season alone. When the 1983 season began, Mattingly’s manager was Billy Martin. In 1984, Yogi Berra was manager. Berra was still in charge for the first 16 games of 1985, then Billy was back. 1986 brought around Piniella, who managed until the end of the 1987 season. Billy Martin returned for 1988 but only lasted half the season and Lou came back. Dallas Green and Dent managed in 1989. Dent and Stump Merrill managed in 1990. Merrill stuck around for 1991. Then Buck Showalter managed from 1992 to the end of Mattingly’s career in 1995.
If you are keeping score, that’s 11 managerial changes in 14 seasons. And while there was plenty of winning baseball (including a 97-win season in 1985) there was no playoff baseball year after year. Young talent was dealt away for stars, leaving a roster of All Stars who blossomed for other teams. The Yankees lacked pitching depth while former farm hands La Marr Hoyt and Doug Drabek won Cy Young Awards and Jose Rijo became a World Series hero.
And to the horror of Steinbrenner, the Yankees were no longer the fashionable team in New York. The Mets, with their bad boy swagger and the electricity behind their homegrown stars Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, captured the headlines more than the parade of superstars imported into the Bronx.
Mattingly for six seasons was one of the best pure hitters in all of baseball no matter what the criteria. Twice he led the league in hits, consistently contended for the batting title, winning it in 1984 after a thrilling duel with teammate Winfield. His OPS was often in the .900s. Twice he had the highest OPS+. Twice lead the league in total bases. He drove in 145 runs in his 1985 AL MVP campaign. He was looked upon as Wade Boggs with power. And unlike the sometimes ill-fitting free agent pickups, Mattingly and carried the torch of Yankee class and dignity, even if his hair was too long for Steinbrenner’s taste.
The early 1990s brought about the breakdown of Mattingly’s body and the total collapse of the Yankees. Mattingly played in an era when sluggers in their 30s could not maintain their power numbers of their youth. His was not the time when former MVPs had career years as they approached 40. The Yankees became the worst team in baseball and Mattingly’s injuries diminished his power and average. His former teammates Mike Pagliarulo, Winfield and Rickey Henderson all won rings elsewhere. This was a time when the Yankees were terrible and being shipped off to Minnesota, Toronto and Oakland meant a shot at October glory. (Sounds like Bizarro World, doesn’t it?)
When Steinbrenner’s exile in the early 1990s led to Gene Michael and Buck Showalter’s rebuilding the team, it looked like Mattingly would finally taste World Series glory. Everything fit together in 1994. The mighty Blue Jays were breaking down. Mattingly’s former rival, Boggs, regained his stroke. Paul O’Neill, imported from Cincinnati a year before became a batting title contender. And with former Blue Jays star Jimmy Key pitching in his second year in New York, the Yankees finally had the ace they desperately needed throughout the 1980s.
But labor unrest conspired against him. The domino effect that began with collusion in the 1980s came to the devastating head of the 1994 postseason being canceled. Ironically, the Yankees were one of the few teams that did sign free agents during collusion, but that didn’t matter. Mattingly’s best shot for a pennant was erased as billionaire owners and millionaire players couldn’t decide on revenue sharing and payroll restrictions.
In the abbreviated 1995 season, the Yankees looked dead in the water. They were a sub .500 team as late as Sept. 3. But the team won 25 of its last 32 games and on the last day of the season, the Yankees were the first ever American League wild card team and Mattingly was going to taste postseason baseball.
The Yankees captain made the most of his only postseason. He batted .417 in the five-game series with Seattle. He posted a 1.148 OPS, driving in six runs and launching a home run in the Yankees thrilling Game Two victory that shook the stadium to its foundation. My generation’s most beloved Yankee was getting his long overdue glory. And with a lead in the 11th inning of Game Five in the Kingdome, it looked like a Cleveland and New York match-up was next. But the bats of Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez conspired against him and the Yankees were eliminated.
Mattingly did not retire after the 1995 postseason. But his contract ran out and to the horror of Yankee fans, he was replaced in a trade that brought in Mariners first baseman Tino Martinez. The Yankees moved on.
For the first time since 1981, Don Mattingly did not suit up in a Yankee uniform. And, as Mattingly’s luck showed jaw-droppingly dreadful, for the first time since 1981 the Yankees won the pennant. The Mattingly-free Yankees won the 1996 World Series. Mattingly had to witness the sight of his one time nemesis Wade Boggs celebrating in a Yankees uniform on a horse while he watched the game, finger still ringless.
Then they won the 1998 World Series… then the 1999 World Series… then the 2000 World Series… then the 2001 American League pennant… then the 2003 American League pennant. The team that could not get into October for nearly a generation now seemed like a lock for the World Series every year.
After the Yankees had won six pennants in eight years and four World Series titles, Mattingly joined Joe Torre’s coaching staff for the 2004 season. In the ALCS, the Yankees were up 3-0 against the Red Sox and Mariano Rivera was on the hill ready to make it seven pennants in nine years—and the first World Series that Mattingly would participate in. Instead the Yankees gave the biggest face plant in playoff baseball history, blowing the 3-0 lead. And for the next three seasons, despite two more division titles and a wild card berth, the Yankees with Mattingly on the coaching staff, could not make it past the Division Series, giving the team its longest pennant drought since Mattingly’s arrival as a player.
When Joe Torre left the Yankees as manager, Mattingly was a contender to become manager of a Yankees team looking forward to turning the page. Instead the job went to Joe Girardi, who managed the Yankees to the 2009 World Championship. Mattingly joined Torre in Los Angeles where once again he made it to the League Championship Series but never to the World Series. Now Dodgers manager, he has inherited a team in flux and questionable management. No doubt if owners arrive in Chavez Ravine, they will bring their own manager to lead the team. And if Mattingly is fired, look for the Dodgers to go on a run.
Mattingly barely missed the Yankees’ glory years on the late 1970s and early 1980s. He barely missed the Joe Torre era as a player and as a coach. He barely missed the chance to manage a World Series winner in 2009. He perfectly threaded a needle of missed opportunities, being a year too early or a year too late wherever he went.
The case for Octavio Dotel having worse luck
Dotel is intriguing because, unlike Mattingly, he is not associated with one team nor has ever become a superstar. He has been a serviceable reliever whose baseball card has been cluttered with many stops and has had several trips to October. He just has never been to the World Series.
He was a Met farm hand, developed through their Dominican affiliates. He put up some solid win totals for Capital City, Binghamton and Norfolk between 1996 and 1998 and by 1999 he was in Queens. By July he was winning games and was named Pitcher of the Week on July 25. The Mets made the playoffs for the first time in over a decade that year and Dotel pitched out of the bullpen in October. He was the winning pitcher for the 15-inning marathon Game Five victory and looked like he was going to be a key player for the Mets in 2000.
He was, in that he was a trade chip in a deal that brought Mike Hampton to Flushing. While Dotel pitched for a subpar Houston team, Hampton won the NLCS MVP and the Mets went to the World Series.
The Astros won the 2001 National League Central and had the home field advantage throughout the playoffs. It made no difference. The Astros got swept by the Braves and Dotel surrendered the backbreaking homer to Chipper Jones.
Over the next few seasons, the combination of Brad Lidge, Billy Wagner and Dotel gave the Astros one of the best bullpens in baseball. Dotel struck out 118 batters, all in relief, in 2002 and was one of six Astros pitchers to combine for a June 11, 2003 no-hitter in Yankee Stadium.
By 2003, Dotel became the closer after Wagner was dealt to Philadelphia and with the arrival of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, it looked like the Astros (and Dotel) were World Series bound. Instead it was Dotel who was sent packing to Oakland in a convoluted deal that sent Carlos Beltran to Houston.
The A’s missed the playoffs for the first time in five years with Dotel in the bullpen. A year later, the Astros did indeed go to the World Series without him.
In 2006, Dotel did what any player who wants to go to the World Series should ever do: He signed a deal with the New York Yankees. He was recovering from Tommy John surgery that he underwent the season before but arrived in the Bronx for August and the pennant run. He didn’t fare well and neither did the Yankees, who were bounced in the Division Series by the Tigers. Dotel didn’t pitch that October and was not brought back for the 2007 season. By 2009, the Yankees without Dotel were back in the World Series.
In 2007, the Royals looked at Dotel, who had barely pitched the previous two seasons, and said “Let’s give him $5 million!” He pitched well in Kansas City and was dealt that season to Atlanta, whose postseason run had ended two years before. The Braves had not been to the World Series since 1999, when they beat Dotel’s Mets in the NLCS.
The 2008 season saw him land with the White Sox, three years after their World Series title. He got back to October as the White Sox won a one-game playoff with the Twins for the A.L. Central title. He did not fare well in the Division Series against Tampa Bay as the White Sox made a quick exit.
After playing out the string with the 2009 White Sox, Dotel played for the Pirates, Dodgers and Rockies in 2010. Of course he was three seasons too late for the Rockies’ unlikely 2007 pennant. This year he has found work with the Toronto Blue Jays, whose World Series hopes are slim at best.
Dotel’s luck is quite different than Mattingly’s. He is not the wounded former superstar holding on. He is a valuable commodity for a contender. Teams that have a shot of winning always seem to be looking for bullpen depth that a player like Dotel can provide. And with all of his pit stops with good solid teams and playing for contender after contender, it would be reasonable to assume that the crap shoot that is October baseball would fall in Dotel’s favor at least once.
But alas that has not been the case.
Bad luck is relative of course. Both Mattingly and Dotel have become millionaires many times over and played more than a decade in the major leagues. May we all be so unlucky! But Mattingly’s luck is worse. He was the lone participant in the Yankees’ two recent pennant droughts and had he broke in a year sooner or stayed around a year later, would have had his World Series.
But the proof is in the overlap. When Dotel joined the Yankees in 2006, Mattingly was his coach. Mattingly’s bad luck overrode Dotel’s chance for an easy ring.
I hope that at the trade deadline Dotel can land with a winner and pitch into the World Series for the first time. He has earned his stripes. As for Mattingly, he has earned his pinstripes and then some.
Even this Red Sox fan hopes Mattingly gets a ring at one point. But if he does act as a cooler in the Bronx, then let me encourage the Yankees to re-sign him post haste.
References & Resources
Baseball America, Baseball Reference, ESPN.com