MIAMI, Fla. -- On another Opening Day, this one in South Florida, Don Mattingly remembered his first Yankee Stadium Opening Day, back in 1983. And he spoke of being booed that day because of a couple of plays at first base that the fans in the place thought could have been handled better, even with a ball that he still remembers taking a bad hop off his chest.
It was mentioned to the manager of the Marlins that Yankee fans didn’t boo him very much after that, during a Yankee career when he was known as Donnie Baseball, even though he became the greatest Yankee to never make a World Series.
“I’d rather start at the bottom and work my way up,” Mattingly said.
Mattingly is one of the most popular Yankees of all time, now working for another guy who falls into that category in Derek Jeter, who won five World Series for the Yankees and had all those Octobers compared to just one for Mattingly -- a memorable Division Series against the Mariners in 1995, the last baseball he would play in the big leagues. Mattingly’s back had betrayed him by then. He would retire after the season, having told his manager at the time, Buck Showalter, on the team flight back to New York from Seattle after Game 5 that he was done.
But Mattingly, who in his prime was voted the best player in the game in a New York Times poll of the other players in the game, made the most of his one shot at October. He hit .417 with 10 hits and four doubles and a home run against the Mariners in five games. The other two batting stars of that series were Ken Griffey, Jr. and Edgar Martinez: Junior hit .391 with nine hits and five homers. Edgar? All he did was hit .571.
So Mattingly’s timing was bad even there. He first showed up at Yankee Stadium in 1982. The Yankees had played a World Series the previous year against the Dodgers. The year after he left, the Yankees began a run of winning four World Series in five years under Joe Torre, next to whom Mattingly would eventually sit as a Yankees coach.
He went with Torre to Los Angeles after Torre left the Yankees, then replaced Torre as Dodgers manager, and his team finished first in the National League West three straight times. But Mattingly did not make it to the World Series on the other side of the country, either. Now he is beginning his fourth season with the Marlins, a tear-down franchise for Jeter and majority owner Bruce Sherman, hoping to build something -- hoping to start from the bottom and work their way up -- the way the Cubs and Astros did before them.
“I have a pretty confident feeling about what we’re trying to establish here,” Mattingly said in an interview room just a few yards from the front gates of Marlins Park about 1 o’clock on Thursday afternoon.
He said all the right things on this day because he has been doing that since Sherman and Jeter took over, and even when an MVP like Giancarlo Stanton and a future MVP like Christian Yelich were on their way out the door.
“We are building a top-flight, first-class organization,” Mattingly said.
Finally Donnie Baseball said this: “We have a hope.”
A better hope, for anybody who has known Don Mattingly and who understands the respect he has always commanded in his sport, is that he gets to see things through in Miami, if Jeter and his lieutenants can actually build on the hope about which Mattingly spoke on Opening Day; if they can build an organization that will be sustainable in South Florida, and a championship team in the process.
Mattingly is in the last year of his original Marlins contract. When he first got there, and before the tear down began, he managed to win 79 games in a season that saw the September death of one of the game’s luminous young pitching stars in Jose Fernandez, who was killed in a boating accident. Stanton only played 119 games that year, hitting 27 home runs. With all that, Mattingly finished fifth in National League Manager of the Year Award voting.
Mattingly turns 58 at the end of April, in a sport where younger executives continue to turn to younger managers often seen as extensions of those executives. He has handled the transition with grace in Miami. It is clear to everybody who has watched him work, especially in Spring Training, the kind of teacher he has been with the Marlins kids.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything like what’s going on here,” he said, and when I asked him about working for Jeter he said, “You believe in what he says.”
The Marlins would lose to the Rockies on this day. They are expected to finish last again, in what might be the deepest division in baseball. Jeter will get all the time he needs, of course. He’s one of the owners. He’s the baseball boss. This is his vision for the Marlins being implemented. Mattingly spoke of hope on Thursday. Here is another hope: That the captain of the Yankees before Derek Jeter doesn’t have lousy baseball timing again.