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THE HIT MAN HITS BACK
Peter Gammons
February 06, 1989
After his most trying year as a Yankee, Don Mattingly is now back home in Indiana, preparing to attack the upcoming season
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February 06, 1989

The Hit Man Hits Back

After his most trying year as a Yankee, Don Mattingly is now back home in Indiana, preparing to attack the upcoming season

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It was 1:30 on a Sunday morning in Mattinglys' 23 restaurant, and some guy they say came from across the river, from Owensboro, Ky., had just hit 17 of 20 in the free throw court next to the bar. Now it was the restaurateur's turn, and Don Mattingly, wearing blue Levi's cords, a polo shirt and Converse basketball shoes, stepped past a locker containing a Larry Bird Celtics uniform and took his place at the foul line.

"This is the way an Indiana boy shoots free throws," Mattingly said, bouncing the ball four times as he squared his shoulders to the basket. Few of the people in the bar stopped to watch the most famous person in Evansville, Ind., an Ohio River city of 130,000, shoot hoops. Most everyone has known Artie—Donald Arthur Mattingly is Artie to some of the boys back home—since high school. Chip Wire was the baseball team's student manager when Artie was a three-sport hero at Evansville's Reitz Memorial High, and he was in the bar. So was Larry Bitter, Memorial's second baseman. And Karl Ralph, whom Mattingly calls Fast Eddie and whom he credits with teaching him the low-rider style of wearing baseball pants that Mattingly brought with him to the big leagues; Ralph was the centerfielder on the American Legion team—Funkhouser Post #8—for which Mattingly played outfield and first base. Bob Durchholz, a high school friend, was sitting at the bar next to Michael Mattingly, the third of the four Mattingly brothers. "Watch," said Michael, nudging Durchholz. "Donnie'll refuse to lose."

After missing his first shot, Mattingly made the next six and then missed again. When he reached 10 shots, he had made eight.

Bartender Doug Mattingly—who's no relation to Don but will become Bird's brother-in-law when his sister Dinah marries Larry Legend in July—was watching when someone flipped off the lights in the basketball court. Unruffled, Don unerringly hit one shot, then another, then another, until he had finished his 20. Twelve in a row, 18 of 20. "Indiana boy," he said, and walked away.

Mattinglys' 23 (named for his uniform number) stands at the crossroads of the public and private lives of its proprietor, who—and this is hard to believe—is just 27 years old. When Mike Pagliarulo, the New York Yankee third baseman and Mattingly's closest friend on the team, came into the restaurant last winter, one of the first things he said was, "Donnie, your prices are too low."

"This isn't New York," Pagliarulo was told by Mattingly's father-in-law, Dennis Sexton, who is co-owner and manager of the place. "This is Evansville—German and conservative—where the portions had better be large and the prices small."

This is also where Mattingly wanted his restaurant, not New York, where "it would be mine in name only," he says. "This is me." And it is, right down to the eye black he's wearing in the picture on the sign outside the restaurant.

Mattingly stops by three or four nights a week during the off-season to chat with customers, sign autographs and generally help out. There are sweatshirts and posters for sale at the souvenir stand—a portion of the profits go to charity—and kids can have their picture taken with Mattingly. One guy who lives in Staten Island, N.Y., has flown in two years in a row to celebrate New Year's Eve at Mattinglys' 23, and parents have come all the way from Chicago to make a child's birthday something special. But the patrons are mainly just the good people of Evansville. The menu ranges from $15 filet mignon to hamburgers or fried chicken for about $5, and the character of the place bears Mattingly's unmistakable stamp: unpretentiousness. He and his wife, Kim, sometimes peel potatoes, bus tables or tend bar.

"What I always wanted was a small neighborhood honky-tonk, with down-home cooking and Hank Williams Jr. on the jukebox," says Mattingly. "But even though we went to something larger, I wanted to run it like it was a honky-tonk."

Late one midweek afternoon in January, a young boy sidled up to Mattingly, who was standing outside the kitchen. The kid stared up shyly, saying nothing. "Would you like me to sign something?" asked Mattingly. The boy nodded, and Mattingly grabbed a menu and asked his name. "Kyle Murphy," he answered, still bashful. "It's my ninth birthday." Mattingly signed the menu and told Kyle how to get his picture taken wearing a Yankee cap, then noted that the boy's sneaker was untied. Nervously, Kyle bent down, but when he stood up, the laces were still untied. Mattingly dropped down on one knee, tied the sneaker and, when he stood up, said, "Hey, thanks for coming."

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