Don Mattingly’s baseball life is ably chronicled in the ‘Donnie Baseball’ documentary, which airs on MLB Network on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. PT.
Mattingly’s playing career was cut short by back injuries, but his peak, though short, left an indelible mark on the sport. He won a batting title in his first full season, won American League MVP the next year, then led the league in slugging percentage and OPS the season after that.
From 1984-89, Mattingly led the majors in doubles (257), total bases (1,978), slugging percentage (.530), and RBI (684), was third in hits (1,219) and batting average (.327), and ranked seventh in bWAR (33.0) and OPS+ (147).
“He’s as good a player as I’ve ever seen in my career,” said pitcher Ron Guidry, Mattingly’s teammate for seven seasons in New York.
Mattingly more than earned the nickname “Donnie Baseball,” which lends its name to the documentary. But despite his superstar status, Mattingly remains the most grounded, down-to-earth baseball person I’ve ever covered.
There’s a point in the documentary when Mattingly said, “I wanted George Brett to think I was a good player.” The longtime Royals start third baseman and future Hall of Famer Brett responds by saying, “If I’m going to be in a foxhole, who do I want with me? Playing against Don Mattingly, he was the guy. In my mind, he’s a Hall of Famer.”
Mattingly after 1989 played six more seasons, but diminished by back troubles was a more ordinary but still productive player, hitting .286/.345/.405 with a 105 OPS+ in those years, averaging 28 doubles and 10 home runs per season but only 128 games played.
He wasn’t voted to the Hall of Fame. Despite lasting on the ballot for his full 15 years, Mattingly never topped the 28.2-percent support from the BBWAA he got in 2001, his first year on the ballot. But Mattingly, who was interviewed extensively for this documentary — in many ways, telling his own story (though there is a narrator) — seems at peace with it.
Mattingly coached under Joe Torre with the Yankees, then followed Torre to Los Angeles as hitting coach with the Dodgers in 2008. Three years later, Mattingly succeeded Torre as Dodgers manager, a position he held through 2015.
Mattingly was literally nicknamed “Donnie Baseball” as a player, but as a manager, you wouldn’t know it. The man has no pretense, and that’s captured perfectly in the documentary.
“He gives you that impression that he’s here to work. He rolls his sleeves up, he doesn’t want to shortchange anything,” said Torre. “It’s blue collar. He never lost the midwest.”
Mattingly was just 34 when he retired as a player, and part of the reason was to spend more time with his kids, who were young at the time. In the documentary, Mattingly teared up as he explained how his parents were always there for him growing up. They weren’t overly effusive in their praise of Mattingly, but instilled a work ethic and supported him, going to nearly every one of his prep games.
“They were there, and I had zero fear of screwing up, because I never got criticized,” Mattingly said. “That lack of fear of screwing up allows you to just grow, and get better. Take chances, not be afraid to make a mistake. If it doesn’t work, learn from it and move on.”
Hard work is central to Mattingly’s ethos. He wasn’t flashy, but still commanded respect.
Buck Showalter, who managed Mattingly’s final four seasons, summed him up perfectly: “Donnie’s substance was his style.”