INDIANAPOLIS — He was on a bus heading to a high school regional baseball game when Preston Mattingly was drafted into the ranks of professional baseball. The radio was playing, his teammates were listening, Mattingly’s name was announced.
The Dodgers picked the 18-year-old, 6-foot-3, 200-pound powerhouse shortstop, 31st overall in the 2006 Major League Draft.
Mattingly had a feeling it was going to happen. It was impossible to miss. He knew the workings of baseball intimately. His father is Don Mattingly.
Scouts had attended games in his junior and senior seasons, 28 of 30 teams had shown up to check out the baseball phenom going by the name Mattingly. The Yankees had taken him on one of George Steinbrenner’s private jets for practice.
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When the Dodgers came to Indiana to see him play, they brought their national-level scouts. Mattingly came up to bat in the first inning and hit a home run on a lamppost near the left field fence. He stole bases. He hung defensive stats left and right.
“It was like something a superhero would do,” said Jason Engelbrecht, Mattingly’s baseball coach at Evansville Central at the time. “I turned to someone in the dugout and said, ‘He just made his fortune today.'”
As the season progressed, calls poured in from major league front office executives. What is your price? Is college on your radar? Are you ready to go pro?
Mattingly was ready. He’s been ready since he was a young boy watching his dad put on a Yankees uniform, watching his dad give his heart to the game.
But Mattingly had his own game to play for Evansville Central first. “I was pretty quiet,” Mattingly, now 34, said of that bus ride where he went from high school star to major league player. “I was focused on the game.”
This game would play out, Mattingly’s senior season would end, and he would be thrust into a world where, even if your father is Don Mattingly, it’s not always an easy world to conquer.
Don Mattingly spent 14 years, his entire MLB career, playing for the New York Yankees as a first baseman. He was nicknamed “The Hit Man”, “Don Battingly” and “Donnie Baseball” because he had a swing, a smooth, crushing stroke that some say has not been matched.
Mattingly would fight to get to where his father had been, playing six seasons in the minors. But he never reached the major leagues. Mattingly saw the ceiling close.
“After bouncing around in the minor leagues, never performing well enough to qualify for the majors,” Mattingly said, “I thought it best to go back to college and get a degree.”
And he had another idea. Baseball hadn’t been his first love sport. It was basketball.
Mattingly spent a summer training, working the field day in and day out, and, older than any college basketball player, he chased a seemingly far-fetched dream.
He made the unlikely move from professional baseball to Division I college hoops.
“Don’t want to give him anything”
Mattingly was a young boy when his father retired from playing for the Yankees. The family moved back to Indiana, to Evansville, where her father had played at Reitz Memorial High.
Growing up, Mattingly loved anything with a ball. He was drawn to the competition, he said. He played football, basketball and baseball. But basketball was his favorite.
“Just the pace at which the game moves,” he said. “In basketball, you felt you could take control of a game on your own.”
Brent Chitty, who was Mattingly’s high school basketball coach, first met him when he was a sixth-grade player. He saw him rise through the ranks quickly, becoming an Evansville Central basketball star. But he was also a star of the football team.
Mattingly had the sports world at his feet, Chitty said. He could have played in Division 1 baseball, basketball or football.
“Growing up in Evansville and his dad being ‘Donnie baseball,’ he handled it so well,” Chitty said. “It’s tough, but he’s tough, every good definition of tough a man can have.”
With Mattingly as the star player and top scorer, always keeping the other team’s best player, Evansville Central enjoyed great success, winning seasons, winning cups.
Mattingly averaged 20.9 points per game as a senior and was recruited by Pat Knight, who had played for Chitty, and was an assistant at Texas Tech under his father Bob Knight.
When his baseball career ended and Mattingly was ready to return to the courts, he expected no favors.
“Preston is that guy that he doesn’t want to ever be given anything,” Chitty said. “And he’s going to be the first to work and the last to leave. The whole time he’s been so humble.”
Mattingly called Chitty and asked if he could train with him for the summer. He lived with Chitty, his wife Kristen and family.
It was a summer of intense basketball, fitness and swimming practices. The shape of basketball is different from that of baseball, and Mattingly wanted to earn whatever spot he could find on a team.
By then, in 2013, Pat Knight had become Lamar’s head coach. When he heard Mattingly was ready to play college basketball, he didn’t hesitate.
It didn’t matter that Mattingly was over 30 than 20, Knight brought Mattingly to Beaumont, Texas to play on his team.
‘It made sense. I didn’t even flinch on it’
Mattingly’s move to college basketball came as no surprise to Engelbrecht as he watched his former player from afar. He knew his talent on the court. He knew the difficulties he encountered in the field.
“As we watched his baseball unfold from afar, I can’t imagine the burden he carried,” said Engelbrecht, now athletic director of Princeton High. “Wherever Preston went, those comparisons were going to happen.”
Things didn’t go the way Mattingly had hoped in baseball.
“Maybe he had hit his ceiling,” Engelbrecht said. “And his dream from the start was to play Division 1 basketball. It made sense. I didn’t even flinch.”
At Lamar, Mattingly was a leader, though his game on the court was modest at best.
In his first season as a freshman at age 26, Mattingly played in 19 games, starting the final three of the season. He averaged 2.3 points and 1.7 rebounds per game, delivered five assists, recorded three steals and blocked a shot.
He ended his career at Lamar at age 28, playing 30 games his final season and averaging 6.2 points. He was team captain.
Tic Price became Lamar’s head coach for Mattingly’s second season. He often told reporters that Mattingly brought “wisdom” to the college game, that he was a great mentor to his young teammates.
Mattingly had a way of being humble while giving advice. And that’s exactly what he’s been doing for the past five years – back in the big leagues.
“Created his own path in the game”
Mattingly was named director of player development for the Philadelphia Phillies in September, after spending the past five seasons with the San Diego Padres. He was the Padres’ director of scouting for three years before becoming coordinator of advanced scouting and major league game planning.
“Preston has tremendous experience for this position,” Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said in a statement announcing Mattingly’s hiring. “He has the ability to combine and use the necessary analytical skills mixed with his baseball knowledge and he has leadership abilities that show up very quickly.”
Mattingly oversees a 180-player farm team, guiding them through financial decisions, college decisions, looking at life beyond sports.
He said his goal in his new position is simple: “You want to build an organization that allows your players to thrive.”
Chitty said the new job was a perfect fit for Mattingly. “What can get lost in all of this is that Preston is in it, No. 1, he’s in it to win and for the people around him to win,” said Chitty, now a basketball coach at Columbus. East. “He wants this farming system, he wants to help them achieve their dreams.”
And, he added, he’d bet anyone a steak dinner that Mattingly is first at the training facility each morning and last to leave.
Don Mattingly agreed that his son had an unrivaled work ethic. “I know how hard he’s worked to get here,” Miami Marlins coach Don Mattingly said in a text message to the Evansville Courier & Press when his son was hired by the Phillies.
“I’m proud of the way Preston has carved out his own path in the game.”
Mattingly charted his own path, an unlikely path, a determined path — from high school MLB draft to 28-year-old DI basketball and then back to where it all began.