Mattingly offers Wright knowing perspective
Dodgers manager no stranger to back woes after playing career was cut short
LOS ANGELES -- Mets third baseman David Wright could be activated soon after missing most of the season because of what was diagnosed as spinal stenosis, or compression of the spinal cord.
There may have been no better person for Wright to have talked to about his condition than Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, whose playing career as a first baseman with the Yankees was dramatically curtailed by a degenerative disc in his lower back.
The two talked in early July, when the Mets were on the West Coast to play the Dodgers and Wright joined the team at Dodger Stadium. At the time, Wright was working toward baseball activities by rehabbing at the clinic of Dr. Robert Watkins, a noted back specialist. Neither Wright nor Mattingly were prescribed surgery.
"I talked to David, but I don't know exactly everything that's wrong with him," Mattingly said this weekend. "We talked about routines and how you got back into those routines and how to figure that out -- 'How much batting practice can I take? How many ground balls can I take?' -- and still stay strong for the game.
"How much work do you have to do to balance everything out? Some of it is just trying to get your strength back. All the little fine stuff. I don't know how similar we are, but obviously when you get shut down with a back [injury], it's tough to get out there and get going. It takes a little bit."
Wright is through the first week of his rehab assignment for Class A Advanced St. Lucie. He is 4-for-14 and has made two errors in four games, including one on Saturday. Wright was given the day off Sunday. He had said he'd probably need about 30 plate appearances before entertaining a return to the Majors.
Mattingly was on pace to have a Hall of Fame career when a back injury from his high school days was aggravated while he fielded ground balls prior to a game on July 4, 1987. Mattingly was a three-sport star in baseball, football and basketball at Reitz Memorial High School in Evansville, Ind. The original back injury was attributed to football, but Mattingly says that isn't true. He said the injury was congenital.
"I remember going to the chiropractor after a football game. I couldn't hardly get out of bed," Mattingly said. "At that age, the pain would go away right away and you'd just keep going. Through the Minor Leagues, I'd constantly be dealing with it."
Mattingly's best season was 1986, when he led the American League with 742 plate appearances, 238 hits, 53 doubles, a .573 slugging percentage and a .967 OPS. He hit a career-high .352 that season, but didn't lead the league in that category. Mattingly's .343 in 1984 did lead the AL.
After the 1987 injury, Mattingly was still pretty potent. He played in 158 games in '89, when he batted .303 with 23 homers and 113 RBIs. But in 1990, Mattingly missed 59 games, and he was never really the same after that.
Like Wright, Mattingly traveled to Los Angeles in 1990 and spent three weeks at the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic founded by pioneer orthopedic surgeons Robert Kerlan and Frank Jobe, who are both deceased. Jobe devised the elbow ligament replacement surgery that was first used to treat Dodgers pitcher Tommy John in 1974 and now bears the left-hander's name.
"It took me a long time to get to that," Mattingly said. "I finally went because I was getting no positive results. That's really where I learned the whole program, which really helped me a lot -- even all the way up to today. It keeps you knowing how to balance it all. I wish I had gone way before. It helped me so much."
It kept Mattingly playing for another five seasons, although he had to seriously curtail what were then legendary work habits. Before the program, Mattingly took 300 swings every day in batting practice, but afterward, he had to be content to take only 50 to 75.
A left-handed hitter, Mattingly had to shorten his swing and go the opposite way rather than pull the ball into the short porch at the old Yankee Stadium. He also had to abandon his patented crouched and pigeon-toed stance, saying at the time that it was "a position I can't get into anymore."
That 1990 season was Mattingly's worst, as he hit a career-low .256 with five homers and 42 RBIs. By his final season of 1995, he hit only seven homers and knocked in just 49 runs, although he still was able to bat .288 in 128 games. Mattingly's career high in home runs was 35, in 1985.
After the 1995 season, the Yankees signed Tino Martinez as a free agent to replace Mattingly at first base. Beset by physical and personal problems, Mattingly was done at the age of 34.
Like Mattingly, Wright -- now 32 -- knows that he has a lifetime of therapy ahead of him, and that there are days he may not be able to compete.
"Occasionally there are going to be those days when those nerves get jammed up in there and I'm not going to be able to play or practice," Wright said earlier this month. "And you have to be smart about it and be a little bit more mature about it and say, 'Hey, this is not going to be a good day.' You just can't do it."
Mattingly knows that feeling. He continues to utilize the exercises he learned from Kerlan-Jobe "because it makes me feel good."
When he's not managing, Mattingly is a rancher at home. Practically, it keeps him going.
"It allows me to muck stalls," Mattingly said.