Book review: ‘Donnie Baseball: The Definitive Biography of Don Mattingly’ by Mike Shalin
The Definitive Biography of Don Mattingly
Triumph Books: 199 pp., $24.95
A few days ago, Don Mattingly pulled on a hospital-white uniform with “Dodgers” written across the chest in blue script and settled in for his first season as a Major League Baseball manager.
How will he fare as this six-month season unfolds?
Well, as a player for the New York Yankees from 1982 to 1995, Mattingly possessed an unflagging work ethic, led by quiet example, and treated people decently.
That’s it. That’s as much as the reader will learn about the man in “Donnie Baseball” by Mike Shalin, a former newspaper sportswriter in New York and Boston.
Although the author audaciously declares in the subtitle that this is a definitive biography (an assessment usually left to others), the book concerns itself solely with Mattingly’s life on a baseball diamond.
What kind of upbringing did he have in Evansville, Ind.? Who were his early influences? How have his life experiences shaped his character, and how might they inform his managerial style? What historic or public figures does he admire? What does he like to do away from the game? Has he read any good books lately?
Not one of these questions is addressed within these pages. It’s unclear as to whether Mattingly declared these subjects off limits or Shalin simply didn’t think to ask. So the reader gets an unrelenting barrage of details about baseball, the quotes piling up.
A biography doesn’t have to pry into intensely personal details to be compelling, but it should at least delve beneath the surface of what a person does for a living.
And even the glimpses into that playing career are less than illuminating.
With the Yankees, Mattingly, a strong-hitting first baseman, crossed paths with such colorful characters as George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin. There is little about the late Martin, New York’s on-again, off-again manager. Steinbrenner, the late owner, shows up only briefly but infuses the narrative with some welcome color, challenging Mattingly in the wake of a big contract signing by saying, “The monkey is clearly on his back…. He can’t play Little Jack Armstrong of Evansville, Ind., anymore.”
This is followed by details of a phone conversation between the two in which Mattingly protested that Steinbrenner was not affording him due respect (the most grievous slight in professional sports, it seems).
A chronically sore back and a desire to spend time with his wife and three boys prompted Mattingly to end his career prematurely at age 34 — although the only references to the sons are in the context of baseball (two embraced it, one did not), and wife Kim appears only fleetingly in the story until the third-to-last page, when the reader is blindsided by the news that Mattingly married someone else in December.
Mattingly spent the last 21/2 years as Dodgers hitting coach under Manager Joe Torre. He committed a gaffe while standing in for Torre last year, going to the mound twice in one inning, which forced an abrupt pitching change and may have cost the Dodgers the game. This incident is related in a defensive tone by Shalin, whose hero worship of his subject is ill-disguised throughout this book.
Ex-Dodgers coach Larry Bowa hints at the challenges Mattingly might face as manager of the Dodgers’ young stars. “Some of them want to go their own way, and I think that frustrates Donnie a little bit,” Bowa says. Also this from Bowa: “I think sometimes he watches today’s games and shakes his head a little bit, because it’s about effort, going out there and grinding everything out.”
Mattingly surely did — impressively so — over a 14-year career. But given the singular focus of this biography, the reader can only wonder if the nickname Donnie Baseball reflects that there is little else to the man.
Noland periodically covered the Dodgers and Angels for the L.A. Daily News throughout the 1980s and ‘90s.
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