By Arnie Leshin
I first met Don Mattingly in late September of 1982 when I was covering the New York Yankees. He was called up from Triple A Columbus, played in only seven games, and was happy to be back with his friend, Steve Balboni, and be assigned the locker next to Balboni, the starting first baseball who played there at Columbus while Mattingly played right field.
But to the 21-year-old Mattingly, it didn’t matter. He shrugged his shoulders and said he’d play wherever they played him. Balboni, though, played one full season in the minors with Mattingly and offered plenty of praise, said he was a potent left-handed hitter and could also play a stellar first base. Except that Balboni could only play first base, and that was why Mattingly was penciled in to play the outfield. It was perhaps puzzling that Mattingly was drafted way back in the 19th round in 1979 with a $21,000 bonus attached.
But after the 1983 season, Balboni was dealt to the Kansas City Royals, and in stepped Mattingly at first base. That remained his position for the next dozen years, piecing together a career batting average of .307, hitting over .300 nine times, clouting 222 home runs, batting in 1,099 runs, pounded out winning nine Golden Gloves, was American League Most Valuable Player in 1985, played in 1,785 games, pounded out 684 hits, tripled 20 times, had 442 doubles, scored 1,007 runs, walked 588 times, and struck out 444 times.
Quite a career, but couldn’t land in the Baseball Hall of Fame as it appears his time for induction has run out. I thought he deserves getting in. He has been great for the game. Yes, I list him along with two others who I thought should be, but are not in the H of F — Roger Maris and Gil Hodges.
It’s not Hall of Fame, but with my assistance, Mattingly and his then-wife Kim had settled into a house in Cresskill, N.J., until 1993.
When his back problems forced him to retire after the 1994 campaign, he became the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers for five seasons, and now is in his sixth year in the same role with the Miami Marlins. He suffered big-time when his All-Star pitcher Jose Fernandez was killed in a boat accident in 2016.
Otherwise, he hasn’t changed, is popular with the Miami fans, popular with the media, never hides from interviews, and always returns phone calls, as he did today, with the subject All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves, a lefty swinger like Mattingly, and also recognized as a class act, a fan favorite, and who is just recovering from a scary attack of testing positive from a COVID-19 attack.
With the Marlins playing back-to-back exhibition games at Truist Park in Atlanta Tuesday and Wednesday and opening the shortened 60-game season in Philadelphia Thursday, “Donnie Baseball” returned my call and was relieved that Freeman had returned to the Braves and that his prayers were answered.
“Freddie is one of my favorites,” Mattingly said, “and I was praying for him. He might be a reminder of myself, popular with his teammates, the fans, and also a lefty hitter except that he throws from the right side. I know I owe him a call.”
The 30-year-old Freeman had a temperature high of 104.5 early in the battle with this novel virus, and recalled he prayed, asked not to be taken, that it wasn’t his time yet. It dropped to 101.3 the next day, but it stayed in that area until it dropped below 100.0 on Thursday.
His wife, Chelsea, became a temperature watcher, and was happy to see it dropping.
“When he first tested positive,” she said, “he had high fever, aches, pains, body aches, headaches, and the virus hit him like a ton of bricks. He also had chills and a temporary loss of his senses of taste and smell.”
And it didn’t help that Benji, their dog, was missing for six days, then returned when Freddie was recovering. But it sure helped when Freddie was back playing whiiffle ball with his 3-year-old son Charlie.”
Freeman said he was thankful for his prayers being answered. He said his teammates welcomed him back, but remained within the virus restrictions. He added that he couldn’t have been any braver. He was cleared a second time on Friday afternoon, was inserted into the lineup, ripped an RBI triple to the fence in right field, and made a neat over-the-shoulder catch on a popup near first place.
“I feel great,” he said. “I only lost one pound. I didn’t lose any strength.”
A four-time All-Star, he won the Golden Glove Award in 2018. He is a Canadian-American, a 6th Year Generation Salvationism (Salvation Army), and was born in Fountain Valley, Calif.
And Mattingly was hoping to greet him when they played the Braves this week. He said he might even call him “Freddie Baseball.”
The regular season starts for the now “free man” Friday night in New York against the Mets at Citi Field.