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Mattingly’s return to Yankee Stadium washed out

June 19, 2013

NEW YORK (AP) — Back in the 1980s, when the New York Yankees were in a championship drought, there was one player most fans were inevitably drawn to.

The gritty first baseman with the thick eye black. The guy who crouched low and then uncoiled that sweet, powerful swing from the left side of the plate.

Donnie Baseball.

During a rare down period for baseball’s most successful franchise, Don Mattingly was a treasured New York son. He made six All-Star teams and won the 1985 AL MVP award, playing his entire 14-year career in pinstripes.

The season after he retired, the Yankees won their first World Series crown in 18 years — and plenty of fans from Mattingly’s era still feel that’s a shame.

His string of great seasons cut short by a bad back, Mattingly had to wait until his final year in 1995 to finally experience the postseason. But all the while, a generation of Yankees fans fell in love with him — and they’ve never let him forget it.

“It’s always been great for me. You don’t quite understand the relationship, honestly. Came from a small town, loved playing, came here and just played,” Mattingly said Tuesday at Yankee Stadium.

“Pretty much tried to keep it as simple as that, and everybody seemed to appreciate that. So that was nice for me because I didn’t have to do anything but just play, and so I always enjoyed that,” he said.

Now the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a job he landed after the Yankees passed, Mattingly was back in the Bronx for the team’s first visit since clinching the 1981 World Series — a year before he made his major league debut.

His ovation was put on hold, however. The teams never took the field Tuesday night and the game was postponed by rain about 30 minutes before the scheduled first pitch. It will be made up as part of a day-night doubleheader Wednesday.

“He’s been such a big part of Yankee history,” said New York skipper Joe Girardi, who beat out Mattingly and Tony Pena for the job six years ago. “The way he played the game — and I’m anxious to hear who gets the louder cheer today, him or Mo (Mariano Rivera) if he comes in the game. So I think that’s probably the only one that could measure up to him, and I think he deserves that.”

Mattingly has been to the new Yankee Stadium before. He took a quiet, private tour with his wife one time when the Dodgers were in town to play the Mets, and he attended a memorial ceremony for late owner George Steinbrenner at the ballpark.

But this is the first time he’s been back in uniform to manage against his former team. In an interleague scheduling quirk, the Dodgers and Yankees — old October rivals — have never played each other in New York during the regular season.

“A good feeling coming back,” Mattingly said at a news conference inside the stadium. “It’s not the building, it’s the people. ... So whether it’s this building or the one across the street, it’s the same.”

The 52-year-old Mattingly said losing out on the Yankees job turned out to be a blessing because it would have been difficult for him to be a first-time manager in the big leagues with all the personal issues he was dealing with at that stage in his life.

A coach with the Yankees under Joe Torre, Mattingly headed out West with Torre and later replaced him as Dodgers manager.

Mattingly, who grew up in Indiana, said the Dodgers and Yankees organizations feel similar to him because both are steeped in history. Interestingly, one of his sons was drafted by the Yankees, another by the Dodgers.

“You don’t understand the history until you get here — or at least I didn’t,” he said about the Yankees.

Wearing a gray and blue Los Angeles cap with a blue Dodgers windbreaker, Mattingly also said his time playing for the fiery Steinbrenner in New York probably helped prepare him for this difficult season, when there has been frequent speculation about Mattingly being fired.

Despite a $220 million payroll that ranks second to the Yankees, the injury-ravaged Dodgers are last in the NL West at 29-39.

“It’s similar to George. I had a good training ground,” Mattingly said. “I’m where I want to be. Even as tough as this year has been, I love what I’m doing. ... The only thing that pushes me away from there is if they don’t want me.

“It’s not fun. It’s not one of those things you want to do when you start the season. You don’t really want to go through this. But it kind of is what it is,” he added. “That being said, it really hasn’t been all that bad. There’s been a day here or a day there where it’s kind of hit fever pitch. But other than that it’s been something you deal with. ... I’m not the first manager that’s had to deal with it and I’m not going to be the last.”

The last Yankees captain before Derek Jeter, Mattingly had his No. 23 retired by the team on Aug. 31, 1997. He has his own plaque in Monument Park — but don’t expect him to go out for a peek while he’s in town.

“The last time I actually saw my plaque, I guess I would have seen it (during) Mr. Steinbrenner’s unveiling. And before that, it probably would have been when they unveiled it for me,” Mattingly said with a chuckle. “I’m not a guy that roams out there and sees that kind of stuff, so it’s been a while.”

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