Don Mattingly reflects on his career beginnings

Regardless of the sport, it is always interesting to learn about the origins of a legendary career.

In the case of New York Yankees legend and current Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly, that career began in Oneonta, N.Y. The Yankees selected Mattingly in the 19th round of the 1979 MLB Draft out of high school in Evansville, IN.

“I was excited,” Mattingly said. “I wanted to get drafted for sure. I was a little disappointed going in the 19th round so that was not something that I wanted necessarily and I was surprised by the team, honestly. I’m from a fairly small town in Indiana, I didn’t know anything about the way the process worked. I’m figuring the Cardinals probably seen me. Detroit had a Triple-A team there. I got letters from Cincinnati so I’m thinking those were the teams that were looking at me, right? Then the Yankees got me.”

Fun fact: That Triple-A team that Mattingly mentioned was the Evansville Triplets, which was around from 1970-84 before being moved to Tennessee to become the Nashville Sounds. Hall of Famer Jim Leyland managed Kirk Gibson and the Triples in 1979, when Mattingly was a high school senior. The team is long gone but old Bosse Field is still around as the third oldest ballpark in America behind Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. It’s currently the home of the Frontier League’s Evansville Otters on Don Mattingly Way.

“I lived probably half a mile from there,” Mattingly said. “I used to sneak in the outfield and play in the afternoons before the teams got started in the early mornings. I’d be on that field all the time.”

His first big league at-bat came against veteran pitcher Jim Slaton, whom he saw play in Evansville.

Mattingly committed to play college ball at Indiana State University before getting drafted. Had he decided to go there instead of starting his pro career early, ISU athletics would’ve gone from Larry Bird (1976-79) to Mattingly (1979-82).

“I had to talk my dad into not making me go to college,” Mattingly said. “The biggest thing was he wanted me to go to school.”

Mattingly said the best thing about the pro baseball is that, “if you produce, you play.” Before Mattingly could star with the New York Yankees, he had to first prove himself with the Oneonta Yankees.

“Oneonta was very nice,” Mattingly said. “Oneonta was like $70 a month.”

It’s almost 40 years since Mattingly began his pro career and things have certainly changed since. He shared a house with another guy and the monthly rent was $70. The old dial-a-bus rides he took around Oneonta costed only a quarter. To put that in perspective, you need at least three more of those just to play a game of pool at a bar.

“My girlfriend would come to town and we would take a bus to the grocery store,” Mattingly said. “push the grocery cart back with something in it and ditch the cart in the alley.”

Getting to Oneonta was a story in itself. Mattingly flew into LaGuardia and had to take a small Butler Aviation airplane (you know, the one with the propellers) to town.

“I was upfront with the pilot,” Mattingly said. “Minor league life.”

Back then, 18-year-old Mattingly didn’t have enough money for his own car. So a trip that included crop dusters and hitch-hiking led to a season in which he batted .349 in 53 games. His hitting coach that season was 25-year-old Carlos Tosca, who he would later see in the opposite dugout during the 2013 National League Division Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves.

A lot has certainly changed between minor league life now and 50 years ago.

“The facilities as way better,” Mattingly said. “They’re like Major League parks just smaller. My son was playing like in A-ball and I went to see him play. They had cages and everything. We didn’t have a cage until Triple-A.”

While Mattingly appreciated how well the grass was kept during his year in the New York-Penn League, he recalled playing in some venues in the South Atlantic League that resembled the movie “The Sandlot.”

“Shelby (North Carolina) was a high school field, Gastonia was not great,” said Mattingly who was playing for the Greensboro Hornets. “That was in A-ball. That’s the days you would get $8.50 meal money for the day. So we play a three-game series in Gastonia, go back and forth and they would give you $4.25, 2.5 hours every day. Next day, bus to the game for 2.5, eat twice. Pizza before and McDonalds after.”

Given how advanced nutrition has become for today’s athletes from preps to pros, it’s amazing to think that legends like Mattingly and Dave Winfield, Tony Gwynn and more were essentially fueled early on by 48 cent Filet-O-Fish.

“Powered by mall pizza,” he said.

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About: Tony Capobianco

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Sports Kave senior writer

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