No matter who you are or what team you root for, you can't deny that Don Mattingly always played the game like a gentleman. Charles Barkley might have been right when he said that athletes don't ask to be role models. However, Mattingly took the charge with no fan fare and served it well. There is no wonder why he is spoken of with the same reverence as other Yankee greats, such as Munson and Mantle.
As a little kid, with season tickets down the first base line of what is now old Yankee Stadium, I had ample opportunity to go up to Mattingly and say hello or to ask for an autograph. I never did though. I think even as a six year old, I realized that people can disappoint you and I knew I wasn't going to be able to handle it if he was a jerk. As years went on and I grew up, the opportunities were less abundant but they were still there. A baseball card signing here or there, age 15, 20, 25, I turned down every opportunity possible. Inherently, I knew even at 25 that I couldn't handle disappointing that six-year old inside.
Finally, I turned 30 years old. Don Mattingly was in New York for the All-Star Festivities and it was time. I called my dad and announced to him that I was ready to meet my childhood hero. After he finished laughing, he picked up the phone and said that he would gleefully buy the tickets into the signing. My dad never met a car crash he couldn't keep his eyes off.
So, there I was in the Staten Island Mall. Waiting for hours behind a sea of Guidos and Italian Princesses. My skirt wasn't short enough and I didn't sound like Tony Danza. If I heard, "Oh! Donny Baseball, I freakin love you man" one more time, I was going to lose my Auntie Anne's pretzel.
A pretzel and a large lemonade later, I had to pee but was one person away from meeting Mattingly. What the hell was I going to do? The guy in front of me wants me to snap the picture as he shoves the camera in my hand and his baby (who looked like she wanted to kill someone, if she wasn't an infant) into Mattingly's.
It was finally my turn. I approached Mattingly in my All-Star shirt (which he complemented) and handed him my baseball. Finally, unprovoked, I leaned over and whispered, "I personally thought that Mr. Burns gave you a raw deal." ("The Simpsons" anyone?) He paused for a moment and then proceeded to crack up laughing. My 61 year old father had to lift me up and carry me out like a piece of Samsonite because I was so elated.
Not only was my childhood hero awesome, he laughed at my joke.