Mike Shalin has written a biography of Don Mattingly. Here’s how that sentence sounds in my head:
Mike Shalin has written a biography of DON MATTINGLY!!!!!
Donnie Baseball was my childhood hero (and hasn’t fallen too far in the rankings since I’ve reached adulthood,) so this is definitely a book I’m excited about.
The author was nice enough to give us a few minutes. We touch on Mattingly’s universal appeal, his place in Yankee history and my inability to spell.
SCP: Dave Winfield was more consistently excellent. Ricky Henderson was more dynamic and exciting. So, why is it that when I swing a baseball bat, I do it like Don Mattingly? In other words, what was it about Mattingly that I (and others of my generation who started watching baseball in the mid to late 80′s) connected to?
MS: I think Suzyn Waldman says it best in the book when she talks about Mattingly being every man, the kind of guy you look at and say, “Hey, I can do that.” He wasn’t your prototype of a great athlete, which is one of the reason he was underestimated when he was starting out.
SCP: Can you share some stories from Mattingly’s time with the Yanks that show what made him a great captain?
MS: Buck Showalter told me that there were so many situations that were handled by Mattingly before they ever reached the manager’s office. One was when Ruben Sierra, just acquired, went into one of those pronounced home run trots – Showalter and Mattingly made eye contact in the dugout and Mattingly nodded. He took Sierra aside as soon as he hit the dugout and told him things weren’t done that way with the Yankees. They never had a problem with Sierra again.
SCP: You recently gave this quote to the New York Times:
“He’s what Mickey Mantle should have been.”
MS: That quote was taken a bit out of context. It was part of a response concerning off the field, not on. No one in their right mind would even suggest Mattingly was as good as Mantle on the field. But his leadership and the way he led his life as a professional athlete was the opposite of Mickey.
SCP: Is it hard to write about someone who has pretty much avoided controversy for his entire life? Aside from the sideburns suspension, Mattingly has never really made headlines for his actions off the field. And is it hard to write about a subject who has such a loyal legion of fans?
MS: Excellent question, and in some ways the answer would be yes. For instance, the book is probably shorter than it would have been had there been more controversy. But the flip side is this is a great guy who is loved by everyone I talked to – and even Yankee haters had trouble hating Don Mattingly.
SCP: Another member of the Mattingly clan did make some headlines in recent years. Can you discuss the situation with his ex-wife?
MS: I told Mattingly early in the process the divorce was off limits, other than to mention it took place. The publisher agreed.
SCP: Over the years, I’ve read conflicting reports about this. Is Don Mattingly now, or has he ever been, Larry Bird’s brother in law?
MS: No, he was married to a Mattingly, but no relation.
SCP: Don Mattingly left the Yankees under less than ideal circumstances when he was passed over for the manager’s job in 2008. Where does his relationship with the team stand? Is it possible that he’ll return in some capacity later in his career?
MS: The unveiling of the Steinbrenner memorial was a special event in the lives of both Mattingly and Torre. Both returned for the event and were greatly moved. Don and others think he would have gotten then job over Girardi had George been in control, but I get the feeling from Mattingly he’s OK with what happened and has moved on. As far as a return, never say never.
SCP: I, for one, was actually kind of relieved when he didn’t get the managerial post. I was worried that, if he did a bad job as Yankees skipper, my feelings about him might change a bit. Was I overthinking that a bit? Can fans separate one from the other?
MS: First of all, I fixed your spelling on separate (the old editor in me). I think there’s something to that and I think that danger exists regardless of who we’re talking about. But real fans of the player will never change their feelings. Just keep telling yourself how much fun it was to watch him play.
SCP: Is it possible that, 20 years from now, baseball people will think of Don Mattingly as Dodgers Manager first and Yankee first baseman second?
MS: Anything is possible. Torre was a star player for the Braves and Cardinals and he will always be the manager of the Yankees, even though he also managed elsewhere. We’re a very “now-oriented” society. I just hope I’m around in 20 years and Don is successful at what he’s doing now. He deserves it.
SCP: You’re the official scorer at Fenway, and covered the Red Sox for years. So… why are you writing about Don Mattingly? Can you still walk the streets of Boston safely? Is there a Carlos Quintana book in the works?
MS: Ah, Carlos. Pretty good player for a bit. People know I’m from New York but I have been in Boston for almost three decades. As far as why I did the book, I heard Triumph was looking for someone to do a Mattingly book and I was there for the first few games he played with the Yankees (as the beat guy for the NY Post) and had gotten to know him through the years. Donnie is a guy who goes on his gut instinct, and his gut told him to trust me with this. It’s not an authorized biography but he cooperated fully.
SCP: Is Don Mattingly a hall of famer?
MS: As a voter, I didn’t vote for him early and then changed, yes, before I got this assignment. He was arguably the best player in the game for five years and there’s something to be said for that (see: Sandy Koufax). His numbers compare favorably with, say, Kirby Puckett. Great hitter. Great glove. Great guy.
SCP: Do you think Don Mattingly would like me? Would he be my friend?
MS: Other than your inability to spell the word “separate,” why not? You seem like a knowledgeable baseball guy and Mattingly likes baseball people. He also likes nice people. But again, him liking you is the same as the question over whether he will make a good manager. There’s no way you can tell until it happens.