Donnie a baseball man if there ever was one

November 11th, 2020

Don Mattingly is now one of five men to have won an MVP Award and been Manager of the Year in the same baseball life. But it is more than that with Mattingly, who has been one of the gentlemen of his sport since he showed up at Yankee Stadium in September 1982. In a poll of his peers once, conducted by the New York Times, Mattingly wasn’t just called an MVP. He was voted the very best player in baseball. Now he is called the best manager in the National League. Yeah, that is some baseball life.

Mattingly’s Marlins weren’t supposed to do anything this season. If people could have picked them sixth in a five-team National League East, they would have done that. The Marlins had lost 105 games the season before and finished 40 games -- four-oh -- behind the first-place Braves. Then they were in quarantine in Philadelphia in July of 2020 after a week of the season had been played.

After that, Don Mattingly was as much Donnie Baseball as he had ever been, back to when he was playing first base for the Yankees and winning batting championships with a .343 average and hitting .352 another time, knocking in as many as 145 runs and having 238 hits in a season, even banging 53 doubles one time. This was all before a bad back ruined the second half of his career and had him retiring at the age of 34.

Then he sat next to the great Joe Torre in the Yankees’ dugout, before getting passed over to succeed Torre as the Yankees’ manager when Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, chose Joe Girardi instead. So Mattingly went to Los Angeles with Mr. Torre and sat next to him there, then succeeded Torre with the Dodgers. He kept making the playoffs, even if the Dodgers could never manage to get over the top.

He went from there to Miami. And all Mattingly has done since he got the job there, with two different owners, is show the world just how much baseball he has in him. He ended up working for another Yankees captain, Derek Jeter. They were going to build something together.

 “I’m where I’m supposed to be,” Mattingly said to me on a Spring Training morning in Jupiter, Fla.

Then the Marlins lost 105 games in 2019 and you wondered if Mattingly would make it, if he would still be the manager when Jeter and his team in the front office turned things around. But they brought him back. And somehow Mattingly’s Marlins went from 105 losses last year and quarantine this year to making the postseason, not just making the postseason but winning a Wild Card Series over the Cubs before the Braves got them good in the next round.

No one did a better job than Mattingly this season, not Kevin Cash -- AL Manager of the Year on the other side of the state -- and not anyone. If you have known Don Mattingly as long as I have, you have to know that no one deserves this honor more than he does, because no one I have ever known in baseball has honored his sport more than Mattingly has.

“Nobody ever gave Donnie anything,” said Buck Showalter, the last manager Mattingly ever had in the big leagues. “He earned everything he has ever gotten in our game. And then some.”

Mattingly, in return, spoke of how much he learned from Showalter in New York, and how much of an influence Buck had been when Mattingly was making the postseason for the first and only time in his career in 1995.

“He showed me the kind of people you need around you when you’re trying to turn something around,” Mattingly said.

The Marlins turned everything around this season, and they became a team to watch again, a team that mattered again in South Florida, the team that made it from quarantine all the way to the second round. It was all something to see, as Mattingly became a great manager this season the way he had been a great player.

This is what they wrote about Mattingly in the New York Times in 1986: “He has been a batting champion, his league's Most Valuable Player, and now his contemporaries have affirmed what all the numbers and awards say about Don Mattingly. To the Major League Baseball players, Mattingly is the best in the game. That was the chief finding of a New York Times Poll conducted in the locker rooms of all 26 teams.”

Mattingly was on his way into the Hall of Fame until he wasn’t. Maybe as a manager someday. He now joins Torre and Frank Robinson and Kirk Gibson and Don Baylor as former MVPs who eventually became Managers of the Year. His team went from 40 games behind the Braves to second place behind the Braves in the NL East. Again: Nobody did a better job than he did.

There was a day back in the 1980s when we were sitting at his locker, which we did a lot in those days, and I asked him how he saw himself.

“I don’t just think of myself as a baseball player,” he said. “I think of myself as a baseball man.”

They honored that on Tuesday night. One more great night for Donnie Baseball.