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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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Mattinglys' 23 has sports memorabilia throughout its hallways, three dining areas and bar. Walk in the door to the first dining room and you see DiMaggio and Ruth. There's a legends area—with tributes to Ruth, Gehrig, Rose, DiMaggio, Thurman Munson and others. There's a boxing ring with tables inside the ropes (Pags's favorite dining spot). There's a Hoosier Room, with tributes to local sports figures, such as Don's late brother, Jerry, the oldest of the Mattingly boys, who was a basketball guard at Evansville College (now the University of Evansville); Andy Benes, a former U of Evansville pitcher, an Olympic star and the first player taken in the 1988 baseball draft; and Bobby Knight. Over the bar are portraits, four feet high, of the two hitters Mattingly most reveres, Rod Carew and Ted Williams, and in a glass case is a pair of the hightop shoes Bill Buckner wore in the 1986 World Series. There's a Louisville Slugger display about the making of a Don Mattingly model bat, a scoreboard with up-to-date standings—this winter it gives those of four major college basketball conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, SEC)—and an array of menus and pictures signed by noted guests, including George Steinbrenner. Only one small wall, just inside the entrance, is devoted solely to Mattingly pictures—photos that take him from his signing with the Yankees in June 1979 to his Class A days in Oneonta, N.Y., to '85 American League MVP. "Don wanted this to be a restaurant, not a monument to himself," says Sexton.

Before Don and Kim headed home the night he buried those 10 free throws in the dark, he went into the kitchen and made two pizzas—from scratch—for some friends who were still in the bar. Then he went back to the free throw court.

"This is really my game," he said. After four running strides he took off and tried to dunk. He stands a shade under six feet, and his flight was easily a foot short. The ball banged off the wall, as did Mattingly. "Problem was, the other kids got bigger and quicker—and I stayed short and slow," he said. Then he put on his lined denim jacket, the one that has a signature in ink above the left breast pocket: MELLENCAMP. "Another Indiana boy," Mattingly said.

It's about a 15-minute ride from the restaurant to the Mattinglys' house, north of Evansville in Darmstadt, a farming community of 1,200. Don and Kim bought the house in 1984 after he signed a one-year contract with the Yankees for $130,000. It's a six-room redbrick, with three bedrooms and a play loft for their two boys, three-year-old Taylor and 18-month-old Preston. The house sits on top of a hill on four acres, which are also home to deer and to a huge pileated woodpecker that fascinates Don. In the driveway a small tractor is parked beside a backboard with a rim that's only about 9½ feet high. "Guys like me got to have a chance," he says.

Mattingly may well be the best player in baseball, but he is coming off his worst big league season—a year marked by subpar numbers, a public spat with George Steinbrenner and the inevitable trade rumors that followed—which is why he's sticking close to his home and family this winter while he works hard to prepare for the season ahead. Except for one quick visit to New York (and their in-season house in Tenafly, N.J.), a couple of days in Vegas for the Ray Leonard-Donny Lalonde fight and a few more in Hawaii for the player reps' meetings, this is where the Mattinglys are spending their time until spring training. "That's the only change in Don since he married my daughter in '79—he's more protective of his time with his family," says Sexton.

Ray Schulte, Mattingly's business manager, says, "Even during the season, when [his agent] Jim Krivacs or I want to do business, we have to go on the road with the Yankees so we don't infringe on Don's time with Kim and the kids." Mattingly is equally jealous of his time in the off-season. He no longer hunts or plays golf, and he caught his first fish at the union meetings in Hawaii (a 210-pound marlin). "He hasn't done a card show since 1984. and I was offered a minimum of $100,000 to do a special one." Schulte says. "I could get him a speaking engagement every night of the winter for $10,000 to $20,000 a pop, but he doesn't do them. He only goes to one or two dinners a winter, and they're either for charity or as favors."

Mattingly's winter days begin at 6:30, when the boys wake up, and tend to end early, around 10:30. He usually fixes the kids' breakfast. "I'm an early-morning person," he says. "Anyway, Kim has to be both mother and father for much of the season."

Don and Kim met in 1976 when he r father coached his American Legion team. He went to the Yankee farm at Oneonta right out of Memorial High in '79 and, a month later, called and asked her to join him. They were married on Sept. 8 of that year and spent their five-day honeymoon at the Regal 8 Inn on Highway 41, a few hundred yards from the Evansville airport. Then they immediately headed for Florida and the start of Instructional League play. "Unlike a lot of baseball couples who met when the player was already famous, Kim has been beside me all the way," says Don. "She's slept on floors, she's slept in rooms that didn't have doors, from Oneonta to Greensboro to Puerto Rico."

"Who loves you, babe?" she asks him a couple of times a day. "Who really loves you?" It's a standing line in the Mattingly household. "He dogs me and I dog him," Kim says. "In this business, you need all the dogging someone can give you." When her husband is showered with praise or adulation at the restaurant, for instance, she'll sidle up to him and whisper, "Oh, Don, you're the greatest—but who really loves you?" During the season she'll tell him, "Don't come home unless you get two hits."

And home, after all, is what Mattingly is all about. "I don't find that I've changed the way I live in Evansville," he says. Apart from Mattinglys' 23, Don and Kim's favorite restaurants are the Log Inn and the Darmstadt Inn (where, legend has it, Abe Lincoln once ate), both hearty family establishments. Don enjoys going to University of Evansville basketball games, especially now that the Aces are coached by Jim Crews, a former assistant under Knight, whom Mattingly calls "the one person I'd really like to meet."

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