Andy Martino, SNY.tv | Twitter |
As a kid in Rochester, N.Y, I'd beg my parents to take me to umpire Ken Kaiser's annual winter banquet. Kaiser, a local guy and longtime American League umpire, would somehow coax the biggest stars of the era to my frigid minor league city. Tickets were pricey, and attendance remained a dream for me over many years.
One time only, probably 1990 or '91 when I was 9 or 10, my dad agreed to take me as a Christmas present. We sat at a table near the back of the room, watching one marquee name after another step to the podium and give a brief speech: Dave Winfield, Roger Clemens, Roberto Alomar, Robin Ventura, Steve Sax and many more, including the main draw, Don Mattingly.
It's easy to forget, because of his injury-shortened career and the unlucky timing of playing between Yankee dynasties, that for a kid growing up during a certain sliver of the '80s, there was no bigger name than Mattingly. It wasn't just his ability to hit for power and average, but the moustache and the swag. Yankee fan or otherwise, everyone had a Mattingly poster on their bedroom wall.
Midway through the Kaiser dinner, I noticed Mattingly stand up and leave the room. Following the instinct that would later lead me to pester athletes for a living, I told my dad I had to go to the bathroom. Then I stood and walked briskly to the exit.
When I swung open the door to the men's room, there he was, Donnie Baseball, alone at a urinal. I stepped to the toilet next to him and introduced myself. He grinned, walked over to wash his hands, and then shook mine.
"You play ball?"
I nodded, suddenly too nervous to speak. My memory holds a clear image of him smiling down at me, which set me at ease.
"What position you play?"
I recovered in time to tell him that I was a Little League catcher. He asked me about my arm, then about what type of hitter I was. He was totally present, and at least effectively faking a real interest in me.
The conversation felt like it lasted 20 minutes, but was probably less than five. But Mattingly took the time to really engage me. He gave me a friendly pat on the shoulder as I walked away.
The buzz from that encounter nearly carried me back to my seat, and lasted for days. And the memory has stuck ever since, including during all the years that I've covered the game while Mattingly was a coach for the Yankees and Dodgers, and manager of the Dodgers and Marlins. Nearly every time I saw him, I wanted to say a brief thank you, but kept putting it off.
The job of a manager has changed, and Mattingly is one of the old guard, not to mention in charge of a team that's nearly 30 games under .500. Reports out of Miami have long implied that this season could be his last. On Wednesday morning, I decided to pop into his office to finally tell him the story, because you never know how many chances you'll get.
Sitting at his desk in the sparsely furnished room just after 9:30, Mattingly chuckled and made a self-effacing joke.
"I was worried where you were going with that at first when you said you came up to me as a kid," he said. "I'm glad I was nice to you."
It's unlikely he was that worried. If Mattingly treated me with kindness, he surely did the same for other overzealous kids. This behavior is not nearly as standard as it should be; I've seen many so-called good guys show contempt for young autograph seekers, clubhouse attendants, reporters and other civilians. Almost always when the cameras are pointed elsewhere.
It's cliche to say that people show character, or a lack of it, in moments when no one is watching, but it also feels true. My moment with Mattingly was a tiny, passing thing -- but it also revealed a satisfying truth that I'd like to share before he exits the stage: Donnie Baseball was a nice guy.