He's at or near the top of just about every all-time list in the Yankee record books, but nowadays, Don Mattingly is simply trying to make a mark on the lives of his kids. With some legends, it takes years, even their death, to put them into a true historical perspective, but with Don Mattingly, you get that sense in just listening to the way he goes about life. I was very fortunate to get the rarest of phone greetings on August 14: "Hi, Tim, it's Don Mattingly." Some things never die. As we prepared to talk, Donnie Baseball was in the midst of preparations to take the family's show horses to the latest competition. Somehow, Mattingly found a few moments to give us a first-hand account of life during and after baseball. What's going on in your life these days?
Life is going pretty good. We're getting ready for the World Championships for our show horses. Well, for Kim and Taylor. Those world championship shows are a pretty big deal in our industry. So, we're heading down to Louisville from the 17th to the 20th. Then, we'll probably spend about five days down in Evansville and then up to the Bronx. The kids started school already, so we're doing a lot of juggling right now. Kim's won a lot of prizes, and we're real hopeful this year. Most of all, I'm just living in the here and now, and that's a real nice feel.
Now that you've had some time to reflect, have you put your career into any perspective?
Well, not really. You know, I haven't thought of it too much. I've got some favorite moments. It starts with the batting title race in 1984 -that was a big deal for me because I was so young coming up and it was really pressure free for me and a lot tougher on Dave. Just being called up was pretty cool for me- just seeing the stadium the first time. Because going through the minors you never know if you're going to get there or not. So to just be called up and actually get to the big leagues and to know you're gonna be in a big-league uniform that night and playing in a game. Just being on the field was a realization of a dream for me. It's a truly big deal. From there, the home run streak and all the grand slams in 1987 was truly special. Also, the last series in Boston in '86 was kind of memorable for me. I knew I had to go like 7-for-7 to win the batting title and I went deep the first time up. Just to have the chance and play in that atmosphere was a lot of fun. The biggest thing, though, is making the playoffs. The clincher was really just the way we played down the stretch. I really was proud to be a part of that. We had to play really well down the stretch to get in, and we lived up to the expectations. You don't see too many teams living up to that and doing what it takes to make that happen. Yes, it was wild, and that was a precious time during those periods of days when we knew we just had to win basically every day. Being able to do that was amazing. It's the type of atmosphere that you live for as an athlete. Outside of the specific memories, it's just playing against some quality players through the years.
Who were your favorite players to play against through the years?
For me, Rod Carew was the ultimate. He was always one of my favorites as a kid and so to get the chance to play against him, I really wanted to impress him. I wanted to show him I could hit. Then, it's guys like George Brett, Don Baylor, Jimmy Rice. Yeah, I liked him. I always liked playing against guys that played the way I played. Guys right out of the same mold as you, right, guys with the intense workout. Yes, you want to impress. Guys like Brett, you have such respect for them that you go against him on the field and you want to prove to him that you can play. Then there's the managers like Sparky Anderson that I could play. And LaRussa, people like that, they get under your skin because of their knowledge of the game. I never played under them as managers, but I still have respect for them and wanted to impress them. Above all, it's just the feeling that I always wanted to make them feel like they didn't want me up against them late in a game or something. For that matter, any point in a game. I think I just wanted my opponents to walk away saying, "Man, that was a good player. You know, he deserved respect.' More than anything, I think throughout my career, I always felt like I wanted to fight for respect. Show the players you can play, show the fans that you can play. To me, once you do it, and you play well for a few years, you want to keep proving that you could play, continue to prove that you weren't going to back away from the challenge and you were going to keep playing hard and that would never change. So, that was just a constant battle.
Is there one thing, moral, or player that influenced you as you were working your way up?
It's funny, it's probably not a player. It's probably a coach I had played for in high school. For some reason I had just total respect for this guy, and he was really a hard worker, and a tough guy to play for. He challenged you all the time. And he challenged our whole team to just do better every day. If you thought you were the best player on the team, you should strive to be the best player in town; if you were the best player in town, you would be the best player in the state, the best player in the state would be the best player in the country. And for some reason, that stuck with me through all the years to always strive to be better and keep playing and keep continuing to learn. I'm always amazed on how much you continue to learn over time, and things, the little things that you can never truly put a finger on, but there were times during games where you almost knew what a guy was going to do because you've been there before. There were always lessons. Maybe after a while you get pitched a certain way or a guy didn't think you would take a base in certain situations. I always kept that in my mind, and took advantage of that over time. I always liked to catch guys being lazy. Just knowing a guy was taking me for granted, I'd come around a base easy and then explode. I loved those situations.
Did you take a lot of pride in being a thinking man's player?
It was the challenge above anything. I wanted to be good at everything, but especially with base running, I knew I needed to work a little bit harder at getting jumps or reading outfielders -- it's the knowledge that you accumulate being around the game that makes you better. If he's running away from the plate or taking his time getting to the ball, I always challenged him. I wanted to be prepared. I don't know if I tried to over-think anything, I think sometimes I thought too much at the plate, for sure. I just took a lot of pride in knowing the game and knowing the people I was playing against. It was all about just trying to get the best out of myself.
After the back injury, what did it take to get back to the level you wanted to play at?
Well, that was kind of the frustrating part. I mean you can either look at it like its frustrating or you could look at it like you're still blessed to be able to play in the big leagues. And that you just have to change some things. And for me, it was just part of the deal. To play well again, I had to do some extra work. And I think over time that wears on you. I mean as far as career length, I think it's part of the reason I didn't play as long as I would probably have liked to have played. But, I just look at the positive sides of everything. You know, with that, I could've looked at it as negative but really it was something that made me work harder and maybe accept that there were certain limitations in life.
Has Evansville always been at the forefront of who you are?
Yes, but it's more about my family and my parents. Not that there was a lot of talking going on in our family as far as how to do this or how to do that, it was more just, I think a humbling, comforting understanding that the talent is not necessarily all yours. You've been given a gift, you are supposed to use that talent, but it was never an 'in your face' type of thing. I don't know how to explain, but to me it's always been respect for the other guy that you're playing against. I was really out of hand as a little kid until a certain point, and then from that point, I've learned to absolutely try to turn it on the field and that you didn't have to be that way off the field. I wanted to be totally aggressive on the field and then off the field, I just wanted to be myself and relax and not make a big deal out of it. I always wanted to excel, but not take myself so seriously. Now that I'm away from the game, I have a lot of perspective on baseball's place as a game -- the importance of it and sometimes the lack of importance of it. It's supposed to be played as a game, it's supposed to be fun. It's not that serious, you know, it's serious but not that serious. My parents never blew my talent out of proportion -- they always kept it low-key, and I've always liked it like that. But again, in the same respect, I liked the city. I liked playing in New York. I like playing in front of fans that were crazy. I like that edge. I liked both backgrounds. If I had to point to one thing about New York I liked the most, it was that edge -- I like somebody pushing me and somebody expecting a lot. Because I expect a lot so it was nice to have people that expected a lot, too. I don't want to talk about last year. I want to talk about right now. What are we going to do today, what are we going to do now, not worry about tomorrow. And that doesn't mean I forget the past, I just want to live in the present.
Coming to New York, did the lessons you learned growing up help you survive here?
I guess you come up half scared of the whole city thing. I didn't know how to get around. I didn't know too much about the media or anything else, but I always knew one thing. I always kept it in mind that the only thing I knew how to do really was play baseball and that was the only part that nobody could touch. You know, you could talk about me and say I couldn't do this or I couldn't do that, but I always felt like once I got on the field, I was able to show the skills and that speaks louder to me than anything. I didn't need to go telling anybody what I had to do or what I could do. I didn't have to brag or do anything to say what I could do. All I had to do was just show it. In New York, that's all the fans want. That's what great about New York because I was able to go out, and without having to say anything, I could just play. And the acceptance I got from that -- I always felt like it's my biggest power and that nobody could ever take the game away from me on the field. The media was the media, and I couldn't control it.
That's why fans came to love you...?
I think that's what's so great about New York. I mean it's okay you could be flashy or you could be quiet. Whatever your personality is you're able to just be there. You know, there's plenty of stories for everyone. I found out early. If you do well, there's plenty attention everywhere, you don't have to go looking for it, it's there. I didn't have to go talking about myself. If you just played, there is plenty of attention for you. I like the attention of doing well and people knowing that I'm doing well and liking what I do. But I didn't have to ask for it and I always liked that."Looking at guys like Bernie or Tino -- they're right out of the same mold. I have a lot of respect for both of those guys. I know Bernie a lot better than I know Tino. I know Tino from playing against him on the field and talking to him a little. With Bernie, I got to see him grow up and it was so neat to watch him blossom, because it took Bernie a while to find himself and to figure it all out. He was one of those guys that the spotlight came down on--he's a lot like Strawberry. He came into New York with the big 'potential' word on him. And that's tough in the big city. Especially in New York where they love to talk about how good you could be or can be or are going to be. Yeah, the hype is tough on guys like that because there's so much expected of you before you even get to learn how to play. And so it was tough for him but to see him blossom over time, that was real special for me to watch that. And then to watch his humility, again over time, watched him last year during the playoffs and watched him the last couple of years that I played, he kind of came into a zone. He always kept it in perspective and it's the same thing I like about Tino. I hear him talk on SportsCenter- it doesn't seem like he has to talk about what he thinks he can do, he just basically goes out and does it. And knowing that over time, he'll put up numbers and he'll be able to carve out his place out there and the people will respect that. And that's why to me, I like both of those guys.
What does it mean to you that you stayed with the Yankees for so long?
It's pretty special for me to get drafted as a kid and play your way through the minor leagues. Then actually being able to play in New York as long as I was able to and then being able to retire a Yankee -- it's a big deal, you know. It's kind of beyond belief as a player when you come up -- it was just a matter of you wanting to just get there. To have had all this attention -- it's hard to kind of put in words that feeling, but it's a good feeling. I mean it could've changed easily over time -- if I got traded or something, it would've been different. But I'm really thankful that it ended like this. I am happy that I didn't make a decision to try to go anywhere else and put enough importance on ending a Yankee to say 'Hey, that's enough.'
Was it ever a big thought of the process to just keep playing wherever it may be?
At times I thought I wanted to play and that it might be somewhere else and that was tough. It was part of every decision. You hear rumors, something here or there, and I'm thinking, 'Man, I don't want to go there,' and it became more and more evident to me that I didn't want to go anywhere else. From that point it looked like 'This is where I belong, this is where I will stay' and that was kind of it. I'm real proud that I've been able to play with one team like that, especially the Yankees, and it's kind of hard to put it in words. Because you don't think about it. I never thought about things like that. You hear a lot about guys not staying with one team anymore but that's just because of the process-- because of the way the salary structure is right now.
So back to you. Right now, what's life all about for you?
My biggest focus right now is the kids and our family. I know a lot of people are like "Donnie, you have to do something" and I really feel like I am doing something. I know there's still time for things that I want to do later on. But right now, I don't want to be anywhere else but right here with Kim and the kids. And that doesn't mean I won't be doing something a little here or there but my main importance is being around the kids -- being at their games, being a part of their lives. I don't want them to have any feelings like I wasn't there for them. Kim and I don't want that, so now that I can be here, we said it's better if we just be there for these guys as they grow up. If these guys grow up feeling good about themselves and healthy, that's a real big deal for me."It must feel special now to spend every moment with them not being on the road. It's been very nice and it's tough at times too, because I was so used to being gone and being on the road. Now, we do enough traveling to get out, but it was a little bit of an adjustment to be around so much. I think they had to adjust to me being around so much. But I'm really kind of settled into it. Still at times, I want to get going, to get on the road and go do something. The competitive feeling is still there, but it's just a matter of time for us to settle into this new part of life.
Have you taken part in your business with your logo, etc.?
A lot of that goes through Ray [Schulte, Mattingly's business advisor], but we talk about everything and we try to do stuff that fits our personality. Whatever we do in business, it's got to be a quality product -- if we're making money on it or not is secondary. Overall, in business, if good things happens, great. If it doesn't happen, it's okay too. To me, that's why I've worked so hard all the years so I don't have to worry about doing something that doesn't fit me or I'm not comfortable with.
So you're finally able to enjoy all the hard work?
Well, you don't look at it like that, because you keep living, you keep going on and you keep moving forward. So, you're always looking for the important things. Everybody looks at what's the importance. I know what's important, and I see things realistically and spiritually. Now, I'm just trying to relax and enjoy the family and really make a positive impact on their lives, and them on mine.
What does it feel like to actually have a day focused on you at Yankee Stadium?
I'm trying not to think about it. When I think about it I get a little nervous. I don't know quite how I fit into that, into Monument Park and that whole scene. I've seen a couple of the days and you know, they're pretty neat with the people that are there and the fans. I'm really happy for my family and that we will all be able to come and be a part of it. I'm trying to get past the world championships here and I'll have a week to think about it a little bit more. Seems like I get nervous if I think about it too much -- the whole thing is a little awe-inspiring. I'm just taking things day to day.
Interview Copyright 1997, New York Yankees and UltraPLEX. All rights reserved.

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