In New York, wearing a Dodgers uniform, he is still Donnie Baseball

Don Mattingly hit .307 with 222 home runs Don Mattingly hit .307 with 222 home runs and 1,099 RBIs in 14 seasons with the Yankees. Photo Credit: AP

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Two Don Mattingly scenes at Yankee Stadium, 29 years apart:

Scene 1: Mattingly, then 23, was creeping up on teammate Dave Winfield in late September, 1984, for the American League batting title. Winfield was hitting .347 but had just gone 0-for-11. Mattingly used a 3-for-4 night to raise his average to .346.

The American League Eastern Division race was long over, with Detroit on its way to a 104-58 record that would leave the Yankees 17 games behind in third place. The Mattingly-Winfield competition was the only one that really mattered in the Bronx at that point.

Mattingly, in the storm's eye, called it "a sideshow, extra added excitement."

And Yankee fans afforded noticeably warmer receptions to Mattingly than Winfield. "What can I tell you? Winfield said of the situation that Sept. 20, with a sigh in his voice.

Scene 2: Mattingly, now 52 and manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who this week made their first appearance on Yankee turf since the 1981 World Series, was asked what he thought of Yankee fans' still-affectionate embrace.

"It's always been, for me, great," he said. "You don't quite understand the relationship, honestly. Being from a small town [Evansville, Ind.], I loved playing. Came here and just played. Pretty much tried to keep it as simple as that, and they seem to appreciate that.

"So, that's nice for me, because I didn't have to do anything but play."

Any student of fandom knows full well that just playing isn't enough. Love for a player is proportionately related to that player's ability to perform, and Mattingly essentially was the best the Yankees had to offer during his 14 seasons.

He was a career .307 hitter, averaging 16 homers and 79 runs batted in per season. He twice led the league in hits, three times in doubles, hit over .300 six consecutive seasons (1984-89). In 1984, he won that duel for the batting title with Winfield, .343 to .340. Mattingly was a six-time All-Star and won the AL MVP in 1985.

But there was more to the fan connection than productive numbers, and the duel with Winfield illustrated that. During the final days of that episode, Winfield grew grouchy. "With the pressures of the New York media," he said at the time, "I don't think it's going to be a nice situation in the end."

Mattingly, on the other hand, declared that he was "just going to let it fly and see what happens. I think the race is better with a teammate. Easier. It's kind of head-up. I don't have to look at the boxscores. I can see what Dave's doing."

By projecting a smaller sense of himself than most stars, Mattingly unwittingly increased his appeal. Late in that batting-title chase, Mattingly and Winfield were approached for a bubble gum card photo together. Mattingly agreed. Winfield declined unless he would be paid $500, reasoning that a card with his picture would be worth a lot of money someday.

Of his playing days in the Bronx, Mattingly said this week, "Probably my fondest memory was the very first day. I think it's a feeling you never forget, because you walk in the Stadium and you walk down that tunnel and you look out. And, basically, at that point, you made it to the big leagues.

"At that point, I really didn't understand anything about Yankee history in general. Coming from Indiana, I watched the Cardinals and watched the Reds, and you see the Yankees on TV, but I didn't really understand.

"Even in the minor leagues . . . you don't really know until you get here and you're in spring training and Mickey's in camp, Whitey's in camp and Yogi's around. And you get to meet everybody and see the videos. You don't understand the history until you actually get here. Or, at least I didn't."

On a previous trip to New York, with the Dodgers scheduled to play the Mets at Citi Field, Mattingly made a point of trekking to the Bronx to see the new Yankee Stadium, across the street from where he played.

"I walked around one day," he said. "I don't know; I just wanted to see it. Everyone said the field had pretty much the same feel and everything. I really wanted to see it with nobody in it, just kind of roam around."

The new building, he said, has "a little nicer facilities, better batting cages, and the locker rooms and better and things like that. But it doesn't feel any different. It's not the building, it's the people. So this feels just as comfortable as the building across the street. Feels the same."

And to have Mattingly back in uniform in the same environs felt like a nice sideshow, extra added excitement.

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