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Q&A: Mattingly talks lure of postseason play

Former Yankees star shut out of playoffs until final year of career @TracyRingolsby

Don Mattingly had a career filled with personal accomplishments. He won the American League MVP Award in 1985. He won nine Gold Glove Awards and three Silver Slugger Awards. He was a six-time All-Star.

But it wasn't until Mattingly's final year in the big leagues in 1995 that the Yankees finally got to the postseason.

Don Mattingly had a career filled with personal accomplishments. He won the American League MVP Award in 1985. He won nine Gold Glove Awards and three Silver Slugger Awards. He was a six-time All-Star.

But it wasn't until Mattingly's final year in the big leagues in 1995 that the Yankees finally got to the postseason.

It didn't last long. The Yankees were eliminated in the American League Division Series, but at least Mattingly, who spent his entire career in New York, experienced playing in October.

Mattingly, who is wrapping up his second year as manager of the Marlins after five years in that role with the Dodgers, discussed his burning desire to play in October in this week's Q&A. How strong is the lure of October?

Mattingly: I think the older you get, the longer you play, if you haven't experienced it, it's really what you're playing for -- especially if you've had some success. Personally, I had early success, batting title and MVP. So it's like you established yourself, as far as being a player in the game and belonging here. But then the only thing to do is win. I think that's what you fight for, just getting into October. Growing up, you dream about getting that big hit or making a play. If you're a pitcher, maybe it's striking out a guy to win the World Series. And that's really what you want to find out. How does it feel? How are you going to react? Can you step up? If you're a player who truly wants to be great, then October becomes part of it. Was it that championship mystique of the Yankees that helped you decide to sign out of high school instead of going to college?

Mattingly: To be honest, at that point, it was just, "I want to play." So the lure is professional baseball and making it to the big leagues. But once you get to New York and in the organization and you start to learn a little bit about the history of the organization, then it becomes like, "OK, some great players came through here." And you just want to be part of that. You finally get to the postseason in your 14th and final season. Was it frustrating?

Mattingly: Early on, probably not. We went to the playoffs every year, all the way through the Minor Leagues. We were in the championship the first two years. The third year, we get beat in the finals. You just assume we're going to go, assume its part of the package. So those first few years, we had some good teams, but didn't make it. There were no Wild Cards. We had a tough division back then with Baltimore, Toronto and Milwaukee. Boston's always good, and Detroit was in that division, too. They had that 35-5 start in 1984. But as your career went on?

Mattingly: It became more frustrating, because you see what is going on in the organization. It felt like we were on a little treadmill, and we weren't really going anywhere. We weren't building toward something. We'd fire the manager, we'd bring in players, but we never brought in pitching, and after a while, you got a little frustrated with that. But did the expectations remain high through all of that?

Mattingly: With [former Yankees owner] George [Steinbrenner] they did. And playing in New York is a special place to play, because there is that push all the time to be great. And the expectation from the owner is that we're going to win. And we would be bringing in Don Baylor and Steve Kemp and Ken Griffey Sr. So there was that pressure, but I think as a player, you look at it kind of realistically. You're either frustrated by what's going on or you're taking care of your own business. And then you start to realize as you get older, we're not being built properly. We're not doing this right. When you finally do get to the postseason, how special was that?

Mattingly: It was a great feeling. I knew I was toward the end of my career, and pretty much the proudest I've been in my career. I could've kept playing, but I was ready to move on. You had back issues?

Mattingly: Back issues, and the kids. A lot of people said the back, but it was more my boys were back in Indiana. They were getting to that point that if I kept playing, they weren't going to know me. They were staying home all year to play Little League and play PONY League at home, and I was in New York the whole time. So it was like nine months of not being around each other. That was hard for me to swallow -- that I'm not going to know my own boys and be a part of their life when they need me. That was the biggest pull, but getting close to the end was something, too. You start fighting for it all the time. We were struggling for a few years there in the late '80s, and then the beginning of the '90s. We weren't going anywhere during those years.

So you kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel in '94. [Former Yankees manager Buck] Showalter comes in. You feel, "We're building, we're getting out of this." We were starting to bring in the right players. We're bringing in Paul O'Neill, we brought in Jack McDowell. We are building the right chemistry. He's got Mike Gallego and Spike Owen, tough guys who play the game right. And in '94, the strike [happens]. We have a six-game lead, and clearly it's going to happen. Obviously that goes down. And then in '95, we couldn't get it back together at the start. But we win 24 of the final 29 games that season and get the Wild Card. That was just a blast -- playing every day like we had to win today, we can't lose any games. And just having that mentality as a group, that nothing's more important than this, right here, right now. We have to win today. And that was the most fun I ever had playing professionally.

Video: NYY@TOR: Mattingly homers in regular season finale And you have a great start in the postseason. You win the first two games vs. the Mariners, but they rebound and win three in a row to knock you out. But you had a good series -- .417, a home run, four doubles and six RBIs.

Mattingly: That loss was tough to swallow, knowing that, for me, I was walking away at the end of the season. But it was satisfying from the standpoint of knowing how I would react in that situation. That's the thing about the end of the season -- because you're always fighting and you're pushing forward and you're just thinking, "How do we win today? We've got to win a game today, we've got to win a game today." And then, when you're eliminated, it's just like, "Damn. Crash-landing. It's done." Everything you fought for, that ... you don't want to believe, you don't ever want to give up hope on, it's gone. That's the part that's really hard about the postseason. And to me, that's just the one thing people don't realize. When you're going through it, you're fighting, you're fighting, you're fighting and ... bam! It's over. It's almost tougher to lose in the postseason, emotionally, than not to get to the postseason?

Mattingly: At that moment, it probably is, because you fought for it. But I think once you look back, you get away, you really appreciate the accomplishment. You appreciate the teams that get there, because it's not that easy. Again, you see teams fighting all the time to get in, and you appreciate that group of guys that you were with, that bond that you end up forming. So that part you appreciate later, but at the time, what it comes to in the end, it's just tough. It is an empty, drained feeling. And when you are on a mediocre team, you look forward to the season ending?

Mattingly: Guys are looking at what they are going to do in the offseason. They are thinking about how they are going to be in better shape next year, what they can do to help the team. They are looking forward to next year. They aren't shook up at the season ending. When you are in the postseason, you aren't prepared for the season to end. And you don't want to be ready for that. It's the guys that never give in who are the winners, period. It doesn't matter what happened, the guys that fight all the time, they play hard all the time. They always believe that good things are going to happen. Those are the guys you want on your club.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for

Miami Marlins