By Mike Lupica
February 26, 2016
After parting ways with the Dodgers, Don Mattingly will try to help the Marlins contend with the likes of the Mets and Nationals in the NL East. (Getty Images)
JUPITER, Fla. -- He stands on a back field at Roger Dean Stadium wearing his new colors, the colors of the Miami Marlins, and this Friday is just another morning in what has mostly -- but not always -- been a wonderful baseball life for Don Mattingly. The Marlins have him as their manager now because the Dodgers didn't deserve him any longer, or ever fully appreciate what they had. All they really know how to do out there is spend money on players overrated or past their prime. You hardly ever get a World Series trophy for that.
You watched Mattingly try to beat the Mets in the National League Division Series last October and were more convinced than ever that $300 million doesn't buy you nearly what it used to in this world. Well, unless Jeb Bush had stayed in the race.
But all you get out of Mattingly on this morning is all you really got out of him when it was announced that he was leaving the Dodgers after five years managing the team.
"It was time," he says. "I love what I'm doing here. I loved it there, too. But it was just the right time. I got a chance to cut my teeth. We made the playoffs three years in a row. We just couldn't move forward. But everything that happened there brought me here. And I think this place suits me better. I think there's going to be a little more teaching here, a little more development, because we're a little young."
Mattingly has been a gentleman of baseball, out of Evansville, Ind., and honored his game for more than 30 years. He was the great Yankee, one of the most popular of them all, who never got to play in a World Series; the one who showed up at the wrong time, in the 1980s and into the '90s, and didn't make it to the postseason until the October before he retired. Mattingly's back was supposed to be shot by '95, the bad back that kept him from making it to Cooperstown. There had been big noise all year from Yankees fans that Buck Showalter, managing the team then, should stop hitting him No. 3 in the batting order.
And then, in one of the best five-game series of all time, the one that ended with Junior Griffey running all the way from first to score the winning run in Game 5 of the American League Division Series, Mattingly had 10 hits and a home run and six RBIs and ended up hitting .417. He never played another game. He was 34.
But you need to remember this about Mattingly, because too many people have forgotten: At his best, his fellow players once voted him the best player in the game in a New York Times poll. There are a lot of Hall of Famers who were never that.
Mattingly talks a little bit about the Hall of Fame on this beautiful day in Jupiter, no clouds anywhere in a Florida sky.
"You always think about it as you get older," he says. "But you know what? Even if things had worked out different for me, and I had made it to the Hall, I would still have gone back over my career and thought about all the things I could have done better."
He pauses now, mitt under his arm, his new players already on the field in the distance and says, "If I do have one regret, it's that they just didn't know as much about bad backs then as I do now."
We in New York had always believed that there was a cold night in Milwaukee that changed everything for Mattingly, and began all the trouble with his back that finally lent a Koufax quality to his career. But Mattingly just smiles at that notion and shakes his head, saying that he started having problems with his back when he was in high school.
"You'd feel something after a football game, and you'd go see the chiropractor a couple of times," he says, "and he'd pop it back in."
Then all across what was such a splendid career when he was young, Mattingly had no idea that all the insane extra work he was doing was not only beginning a long, slow deteriorating of his back, but also taking years off his career.
"If you'd feel a little stiffness back in those days, you'd basically hear that you need to put your knees to your chest, do some stretching and rest," Mattingly says. "If there'd been the kind of science and information then that there is now, I would have known that maybe 100 swings was more productive than 200."
He pauses and says, "I spoke to [the Mets'] David Wright [who's had ongoing trouble with spinal stenosis] about this last year and told him to make sure to get a program that made sense for him and made him comfortable."
So Mattingly's career ended too soon. He finally ended up sitting next to Joe Torre. The Yankees hired Joe Girardi instead of Mattingly when Torre left Yankee Stadium. Torre and Mattingly ended up with the Dodgers. Mattingly was able to succeed Torre there.
But Torre never had the best team there the way he did in New York. Mattingly never had the best team, unless you subscribed to the boneheaded notion that the biggest payroll still means the best team. Even with Andrew Friedman brought in from the Rays to run baseball operations, the Dodgers remain as overpriced as some of their own baseball players.
The Marlins have had their own problems lately, you can look that up. But Mattingly is right: He's still better off where he is. Maybe here, a long way from Dodger Stadium and Yankee Stadium, the guy who will always be known as Donnie Baseball will end up in the World Series, at last.