Mattingly digging into new job

NEW YORK -- In another era, Don Mattingly would've spent the final hours before game-time in the batting cage, working on his swing, not unlike a mechanic under the hood of an expensive car.

These days, Mattingly is just as obsessed with hitting, but is busy evolving from star to former star to official caretaker of what the Yankees believe is the greatest lineup they've ever assembled.

This is no small experiment, for both Mattingly and the Bombers. Mattingly's a rookie hitting instructor, taking his first step up George Steinbrenner's corporate ladder, all but christened as a future manager by Joe Torre, who said, "Donnie can go as far as he wants in this organization."

That endorsement flatters Mattingly, but hardly alters his vision of the future, which is measured one hitting tutorial at a time.

"I've got enough to keep me busy without thinking about that other stuff," Mattingly said with a smile. That work load includes fine-tuning the Yankees' offense, which, on the surface, seems like a dream job-description. He is, after all the most popular modern-day alumnus in the Yankee family, and has become Steinbrenner's personal favorite.

Still, Mattingly also knows the tremendous responsibility he's accepted and the fact that he'll inevitably be targeted by the Boss -- if not soon, than soon enough.

After all, Yankee hitting instructors are magnets for blame. Mattingly's predecessor, the hard-working Rick Down, was fired soon after Game 6 of last year's World Series, partly because of Jason Giambi's .250 batting average, Alfonso Soriano's 1-in-3 strikeout to at-bat ratio in the postseason, and mostly because the Bombers never came close to threatening Florida's Josh Beckett in the final game of the Series.

Without any prior full-time experience, Mattingly is being counted to repair the nicks and dents from the 2003 edition. As much as the Yankees' lineup represents a hitting instructor's vision of heaven, having that much firepower leaves Mattingly in a virtual no-win situation.

If the Yankees score 1,000 runs this season, it's only because they're supposed to: they have last year's AL home run champ (Alex Rodriguez) batting third, a former MVP winner (Jason Giambi) batting fourth, and Gary Sheffield, who drove in more runs than any Yankee last year, batting fifth.

And if the Yankees don't hit? It's hard to imagine the offense being smothered, yet the Bombers found themselves being no-hitted for five innings by Tampa Bay's Paul Abbott Wednesday afternoon, struggling mightily to squeeze out a 3-2 win.

Of course, the Yankees' first four games, all against the D-Rays, are too small of a sample to draw any real conclusions, but when there were questions to be asked -- about A-Rod's .188 batting average for the first four games, for example -- it was Mattingly who was sought for answers.

"It's early, I'm not worried about our hitting," he said. "A baseball season is like the (Kentucky) Derby. Lots of horses get out of the gate fast, but how many of them finish?"

Such confidence was one of Mattingly's primary assets as a hitter; it now serves him well as hitting instructor, too. The Yankees are wildly enthusiastic about Mattingly's willingness to listen, his work-ethic, which in Giambi's words, "is off the charts" and his understanding of situational hitting.

"Whatever Donnie talks to you about, you better listen, because he's been there and done everything," said Bernie Williams. "Not many hitting instructors have his experience. Donnie's points all come from his playing days."

"To me, the big thing is that Donnie understands what it's like to play hurt. That helps," said Giambi. "It matters a lot when the guy who's working with you has actually been in your shoes."

Only 42, Mattingly relates to the Yankees partly because he's still considered a contemporary; he still walks and talks and looks like a professional athlete. Indeed, the Yankees suspect that, if he really wanted, Mattingly could get in the cage and deliver the clean line drives that made him New York's best first baseman in the mid '80s.

Even as recently as 1999, when he was just 37, Mattingly was being urged to turn back the clock. He was four years into retirement and visiting Yankee spring training as a guest instructor, but on a back field after batting practice, Mattingly and Tino Martinez and a handful of veterans found the perfect opportunity to see whether the former captain still had his skills.

"Come on, Donnie, just a couple of hacks," Martinez urged Mattingly.

The first baseman had fought the urge to swing a bat ever since leaving the game in 1995. Finally, Mattingly surrendered. He stepped into the cage, leaned over the plate as he'd done thousands of times in his career, and quickly discovered the bat-speed hadn't left him.

Mattingly hit three or four line drives -- perfectly smoked, right from the bat's sweet spot.

"It was all right there," he recalled. Just as quickly as the session started, however, Mattingly walked away. No sense taxing his chronically-troubled lower back. No sense pretending he was still The Man, even though the sense of nostalgia was indeed overpowering.

It felt so good, Mattingly never returned to the cages. Not that day, not ever since.

Today, Mattingly says, "I've accepted the fact that I'm never going to be what I was. It's enough for me to help these guys do the things they're capable of. That's what makes me happy now."

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.