Orioles manager Buck Showalter doesn’t typically spend 12 minutes on one topic while chatting with the media before games. Then again, the subject isn’t usually one of his former teammates and players who just happens to be visiting Camden Yards this weekend.
Don Mattingly is coming to Baltimore, and he’s bringing the Los Angeles Dodgers with him.
He’ll always have Showalter’s respect.
Showalter can’t say enough about Mattingly, as you’re about to read. They were teammates in the minors in 1981 and 1983. Showalter managed him with the Yankees from 1992-1995. The affection that Showalter holds for Mattingly is evident with every word spoken.
“People say friends are people who know all about you and still like you. That’s kind of where this one falls,” he said.
“I’ve known Donnie since he was 20, 21. He helped my career a lot. I knew I wasn’t going to be the left fielder or first baseman for the New York Yankees when I saw him. He was going to be. This is before he hit for any power. I harken back a lot of times when you evaluate guys and power. His was more of a mechanical thing than it was just a late power development. Learning how to pull the ball. Some mechanical things he did and they did with him.”
Mattingly evolved into a six-time All-Star and one of the most popular players in franchise history, which is saying a lot considering the number of legends who have worn pinstripes. Now he’s managing the Dodgers for a third season and going head-to-head with Showalter for the first time.
“Donnie just has a great presence about him,” Showalter said. “He’s got a real pure heart. He’s real sincere. I think players see that with him, that he has no real agenda. He understands how hard it is to play.
“He didn’t run particularly well. If you tooled him out, it wouldn’t have been over the top, even though I would have given an eight for makeup and baseball aptitude and stuff. But he’s one of those guys, if you tell him he can’t do something, he’s going to show you. He was one of our best baserunners. He didn’t run particularly well, but he could score from second on a single. He cut the bags. He took pride in it. A lot of guys who can’t run particularly well just say, ‘OK, I can’t run.’ Donnie could move up on a short passed ball, he read balls in the dirt. He was trying to figure out a way to contribute every night. He’s a grinder. It does not surprise me that he’s managing and he’s a good one.”
Mattingly retired after the Yankees lost to the Mariners in the 1995 American League Division Series. Showalter remembers every detail of their conversation, every emotion, as if it happened yesterday.
“Having him come up and tell me he was going to retire, on the plane coming back from Seattle, was pretty emotional for both of us,” Showalter said. “Unlike a lot of players you see, he wanted the Yankees to know right away that they need to go get a first baseman, instead of waiting until January or something, when a lot of the options were gone. We made the trade for Tino (Martinez) before it was really out there about him. Because once somebody knows that, they’re going to hold you up. If that conversation hadn’t happened on the plane coming back ...
“It’s pretty tough getting in at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and the first thing he did was make sure the GM knew. He had been thinking about it for a while.”
Mattingly played through serious back pain in the latter stages of his career, which earned more points with Showalter.
“I’d see him show up at 11, 11:30 in the morning, just to get to the point where he could play nine innings with his back,” Showalter said. “It was a lesson for me, about some of the stones that were cast at him. When you’re there in that locker room seeing what he’s doing through to be there for his team ...
“He told me the last two weeks of the season - it was really nip and tuck about getting in the playoffs - that he was going to go for it with his back. And for two weeks I saw the old Mattingly, with the torque in the back and hooking the ball on the outer half into the seats. Every time he took a swing, you were wondering if it was going to be the last one. By the time we got off the three games of that turf in Seattle and what had gone on with his back the last two or three weeks, I think it really helped him make up his mind. I wonder sometime how he would have been if we continued.
“He had to stand up the whole trip back from Seattle, and out there. That’s a long plane ride. You think you’ve had a bad day? Get on that plane ride back from Seattle. That’s a long flight, for a lot of reasons. Losing and having that conversation.
“I could talk about him forever. You’re very fortunate to have had him pass your way. And I didn’t really get to see much of him in his prime, but he was still such a contributor. Everybody wanted to please Donnie. His teammates. That still permeates.
“He was one of those guys who would say, ‘Look, I’ll handle this one.’ I had some players we’d take from other clubs who were kind of on the fence of some of the things they were doing, and Donnie could handle that. Because he was sincere. He had a pure heart about it. It wasn’t trying to show. He just wanted to win. That’s all he wanted to do. He just wanted to win.”
One of Showalter’s highlights as a manager was watching Mattingly, having finally made it to the postseason, being introduced at the Division Series. The old stadium shook.
“That was pretty cool,” Showalter said. “To this day, a lot of people tell you that’s the loudest they’ve ever heard the stadium. First time I thought the dugout might collapse. We had to do all our communicating inside because once you got in the dugout, you couldn’t hear. You could have somebody right next to you and you couldn’t hear. A lot of it was the emotion riding with Donnie.
“You can tell this is a subject I like.”
No doubt. May as well let Showalter continue.
“The only way you equated whether or not he had a good day at the park was whether or not we won a baseball game,” Showalter said. “He could be 0-for-5 and have routine plays at first and be sincerely happy, and he could be 4-for-5 and play the heck out of first base, and if we lost, it wasn’t a good day.
“He came in and wanted me to take him out of the three hole because he thought I was taking a lot of grief about it, and it would kind of quiet things down. We had a nice heated conversation about him having input on the batting order. I would decide where he would hit. He thought it was pretty funny later on. But he brought so much to us just with presence.
“He was a guy I never saw anybody throw at. There was such a respect for him. He got hit by pitches, but never felt like anybody intentionally threw at him. There was just such a respect for the way he went about his business.
“I tried to get him to scale back some. He took so much early work, and so much with his back. He said, ‘I can’t do that. That’s what gives me the edge that I have.’ He said, ‘I want to look out at that pitcher in the eighth and ninth inning in a key part and know there’s no way that he’s prepared for this moment like I am, and have that mental edge.’ That’s why he tried to work harder than anybody else. He just wanted that mental edge looking out there at his competition.
“OK, I’ll stop. I like him. (But) I’m not going to like him for three days.
“They got the right guy.”