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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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Mattingly's garage is his baseball laboratory, and he reserves his mad-scientist hours for the time he spends there. There are cardboard cartons and a few odd trophies, but there's barely room for one compact in the three-car garage because of the batting cage and the pitching machine. Besides these tools of the hitter's art, there's also a boxer's speed bag. "I watched Sugar Ray Leonard work on this thing and figured it had to help me," says Mattingly. "It's great for my hands, my hand-eye coordination." He puts on a pair of light gloves, takes a stance in front of the bag and bears down on it as if he were facing Frank Viola.

Then he hits. Some days he's in the garage before sunrise. Sometimes he waits until Taylor and Preston have gone to sleep at night. But every day since New Year's, Mattingly has been in the cage, hitting off the pitching machine. "He gets locked in there the way he gets locked in during the season," says Pagliarulo. "I've never seen any other baseball player like him."

Almost every day during the off-season, Mattingly runs, racing against a clock, competing with himself. And on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he also does heavy-duty lifting at The Pit, an Evansville gym where the motto is NO CARPET, NO SAUNA, JUST IRON. He works on his legs, back and upper body. He's aiming to go into this season at 185 pounds, five less than his playing weight of the past three years.

Mattingly's contract stipulates that he can't play basketball or racquetball, his two favorite off-season sports. "I understand why they forbid them," he says, "but I'm not sure it's right. I can do other activities for the physical conditioning I need, but I think it's good mentally to compete year-round. I try to do that with my running. I try to compete in my lifting by pushing myself to the point of failure. But there's nothing like competition. That's what baseball—all sports—is all about: willpower, beating someone, winning."

"Check Donnie's eyes during a game," says former Yankee pitcher Bob Tewksbury. "They're right out of a horror movie. He yells at opposing players. He paces in the dugout. I've never seen anyone compete with that kind of passion."

"Don and I believe that playing every game at breakneck speed is fun," says Pagliarulo. "He'll holler, "Nothing gets through this infield...everyone's uniform had better be dirty.' If Don were miked at the plate, you'd hear him let out a kind of ninja scream every time he swings. That's the way he is."

Says Mattingly: "I don't actually dislike any opposing players, but I hate them when I play against them. Especially pitchers. I'm competing with them, every at bat, 162 games a season. You have to hate the guy. You have to get your mind into a sort of rage. I try to think of all the things the guy has done to irk me over the years; fortunately, I seldom forget things. Take [Orioles pitcher] Mike Flanagan, for instance. He may be one of the nicest people in the game, but when I go up against him, I remember that he drilled me in the side after I hit a grand slam off him in spring training in 1986. Then I think, Yeah, drop down and throw that weak sidearm junk...don't challenge me, you son of a bitch. You have to push yourself like that every at bat, constantly striving for another level."

"In high school they used to kid him about all the grunting noises he made on the basketball court," says Wire. "It doesn't matter if it's Wiffle Ball or chess, Don hates losing," says his brother Michael. "I taught him to play chess when he was five. I wasn't bad for a 10-year-old, but he kept playing and playing and playing until he could beat me. He simply refuses to lose."

He certainly wouldn't on the final day of the 1984 season, when he was battling teammate Dave Winfield for the American League batting title. Mattingly, who went into the game trailing by two points, went 4 for 5 to finish at .343, three points ahead of Winfield, who went 1 for 4. "Anyone who knows Donnie knows that the fact that the Yankees haven't won eats at him," says Pagliarulo. "He doesn't want to say it publicly because he feels he had a bad year last year, but not winning got to him. One night he told me, 'Michael, I haven't won since A ball. It's killing me.' And I'll tell you something: Until you see Don Mattingly in a pennant race, you won't have seen the real Don Mattingly. He doesn't care about stats. He wants to win."

Back in Greensboro, in Class A ball, Mattingly was involved in a pennant race. "He was like Carl Yastrzemski in 1967," says Schaefer. "If we needed a single, he singled. A double, he doubled. Two runs, he knocked them in. He locked himself in for a two-week period that was almost scary."

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