Miami Marlins manager, Don Mattingly, had an illustrious 14-year Major League Baseball playing career, all with the New York Yankees. Mr. Mattingly was an All-Star six times, won nine Gold Glove Awards, three Silver Slugger Awards, the 1984 American League batting title, and was the 1985 American League Most Valuable Player. Considered one of the most respected and successful franchises in all of sports, the Yankees have named only 13 team captains in its history. “Donnie Baseball” served in that role for five seasons. His number, 23, will never be worn by another Yankee because it was retired by the organization in 1997. Even with all of that success at the professional level, nothing brings a smile to Mr. Mattingly’s face more than reflecting on running to the concession stand for a free soda after a game at the Evansville North Side Little League.
Little League recently sat down with the “Hitman” to discuss his Little League days in Indiana, the role his father and mother played on the sidelines, and the importance of Little Leaguers® learning fundamentals, as well as respect for their fellow players.
Little League – What was your Little League experience like?
Don Mattingly - It was great. All of it. I just loved playing baseball with my friends. One of the things that was really cool in our league, was that we stayed together as a team, from 9 years up to 12. We got to know each other, and became friends. Our coach was great. There was never any yelling or screaming. He taught the game right, and kept everything fun. That’s so important in Little League – keeping everything fun.
LL - What role did your parents play when you were in Little League?
DM - My parents were a big part of Little League for me. They came to every game. I never got criticized for anything I did in the field or at the plate. I also never got a lot of praise for something I did well. I just played baseball, and they were just being parents. We didn’t talk much about the game after it was over. We just went somewhere to eat. My older brothers, Michael and Randy, who also played Little League, were there most of the time, too. I had a lot of family support.
LL – Did you use that same parenting philosophy when your sons played baseball at an early age?
DM – I did. I didn’t coach my sons. I didn’t want to interfere with what they were being taught. If the coach had a question I would help, but it was mainly about making sure the players knew the fundamentals. Learning the fundamentals of the game is important in Little League. I just wanted my boys to play, and have fun. I worked with them at home, but it was mainly about making sure they practiced their fundamentals. I didn’t want them to have some crazy stance or do something crazy with their hands when they were at the plate. It’s important to keep things simple.
LL – Was there a lot of community support for Little League when you played?
DM – Definitely. Our Little League was in a park (Garvin Park) where there was a pool, and our local AAA team had a field there. There was always something to do. People always came to the park. I rode my bike there. It was a great atmosphere.
LL - What advice would you give to Little Leaguers?
DM - Have fun. Enjoy it. For MLB players, baseball is their job, so there is a feeling of the game being work. That shouldn’t be that way for Little Leaguers. Listen to your coach, have fun, learn the game, learn the fundamentals. Learn the basics – how to catch, throw, and hit correctly. Appreciate the team experience, and the life lessons you are being taught. It’s important to learn to be humble when you win, and be respectful after a loss. Remember, if you lose, at the end of the day, there will be another game, and another opportunity. If you lose, learn something from it, and be positive.
LL – What advice would you give to parents who have kids playing baseball or softball?
DM - Support your kid, and realize that 99 percent of them won’t make it to the big leagues. Be realistic and let them have fun with their friends. This is a special time for them. Parents can ruin the experience, and some can be over the top. That’s not right. Little League is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Be supportive, and don’t yell and scream. Stay in control.
LL – Do you have a favorite Little League memory?
DM – Oh, man, there are so many. From riding my bike to game to being with my friends. I’ll never forget the free soda after the game! I can picture all of us running to the stand to get our free soda. Game is over, go get your free soda! That was the best, and the way it should be.