NEW YORK -- Don Mattingly was on his way to the winners' clubhouse in Citi Field, still looking out of place in Dodger blue after all these years, when he stopped long enough to admit it hurt nearly two decades ago to watch the New York Yankees start building a dynasty without him.
You have to understand where he was coming from. Mattingly was the son of an Indiana mailman who grew up worshiping Joe DiMaggio, and who could never quite process the thought of his own flesh and blood taking his own place in Yankee mythology. Bill Mattingly wasn't even sure his boy was good enough to make the majors.
"I see those guys as some of my heroes," Bill Mattingly once said of Joe D and the Mick and the rest. "And I see Don as my son."
As a ballplayer, Don was far more than Bill Mattingly's son. He was a lethal offensive and defensive force, and at one point the best player in the game. Don retired in 1995, right after the one and only playoff series the baseball gods granted him, a classic series in Seattle that only persuaded millions of fans who had sworn off the sport after the players' strike and cancellation of the '94 World Series to return as true believers. Mattingly hit .417 over those five forever games. Of course he did.
And then he stared at his living room TV the following fall as Derek Jeter began living the October life Mattingly had once imagined for himself.
"Oh man," Mattingly said Tuesday night after his Dodgers saved their season, and their manager, by taking Game 4 of the National League Division Series from the Mets. "It was hard for me to watch those years in the playoffs, especially that first one. I was connected to so many guys at that time, [Paul] O'Neill, [Wade] Boggs, Jeet was coming up, Bernie [Williams], Mariano [Rivera], Andy Pettitte, all those guys. I felt like that was our team the year before, and I missed that.
"Man, that was hard on me, '96. It got a little easier as time went on."
But not much. A bad back robbed Mattingly of a near-certain place in the Hall of Fame, and some bad timing separated him from the kind of pitching talent and supporting cast that gave Jeter four World Series titles in his first five years as a starting shortstop, and five overall.
Mattingly's second career in New York was defined by the same cruel luck. After he watched Jeter play in six World Series over the first eight years of his own retirement, Mattingly joined Joe Torre's coaching staff before the 2004 season. His postseason run by Torre's side would start with the biggest collapse in baseball history -- Boston's deferred sweep in the '04 ALCS -- and would end in a loss to Cleveland remembered for the biblical plague of Lake Erie midges that fed on the overwhelmed Yanks.
And now this: a can't-win job as Torre's successor in Los Angeles, where Mattingly is burdened by the constant references to the payroll size, to the awkward fit with an analytics-centric boss who didn't hire him, and to the very real possibility he'll be fired if Zack Greinke doesn't beat the Mets on Thursday night.
Done watching Clayton Kershaw finally do something about his 1-6 postseason record, Mattingly conceded that he's felt the heat in L.A.
"It wears on me a little bit," he told ESPN.com. "After a while you get tired of it, honestly. But you always get back to what you're trying to accomplish, and you talk to pure baseball people who understand how hard this is. The postseason is such a crapshoot, it really is. You don't know who's going to get hot. DeGrom comes out on Thursday and just punches out . Stuff happens.
"It's so hard to get that ring, and I will say that the [criticism] does wear on you. But I still love doing this. I love the competition. I love the grind and the battle of it."
He's proven it so far in this series. Chase Utley turned himself into his generation's answer to Ty Cobb in Game 2, and Mattingly didn't back down before Game 3. He supported his player, spoke of other overly aggressive slides that went unpunished, and took a shot at the New York news media that wasn't afraid to jab him as his playing skills eroded. The former Yankee captain also wasn't afraid to use the current Mets captain to make a point.
"If it would've been their guy," Mattingly said of Mets fans, "they would be saying, 'David Wright, hey, he's a gamer. He went after him. That's the way you've got to play.'"
Make no mistake: Mattingly still adores New York. He still visits every winter with his wife to see some friends and a few shows. Cops, cabbies and Yankee fans old enough to appreciate his greatness will approach with a kind word, or a request to take a photo. Some remember the last regular-season game Mattingly ever played in the Bronx, where the crowd said its goodbyes just in case the Yankees didn't win the wild card in the first year of the wild card.
His manager, Buck Showalter, ordered him to take out the lineup card to the umps that day. Mattingly received several standing ovations, and an eighth-inning video tribute while he waited on deck. He returned for two home playoff games his Yankees would win, and refused to allow his back and broken-down body to prevent him from playing that entire series like he had in his prime.
Moments after the Yankees lost their epic Game 5 with the Mariners in the Kingdome, George Steinbrenner sat in a folding chair at Mattingly's locker and tried consoling his captain. As reporters approached them, Steinbrenner rose, grabbed Mattingly around the neck with both hands, and squeezed him tight. The first baseman appeared on the verge of tears. He knew he was done. He knew he would never get to play in a World Series.
Tuesday night, when told he deserved a better October fate, when told his injured back left him a Hall of Famer who would never make it to Cooperstown, Mattingly maintained that he didn't get a raw deal.
"Exact opposite," he said. "I just look at the blessings. I look at all the things I've been able to do in the game, the people I've met, the places it's taken me ... But I do want to get a ring, no doubt about it. I want to win it all. And now it's going to have to be as a manager. We've got players who haven't experienced it, just like myself, so to be a part of that with them would be great."
Chances are, Mattingly won't get that chance with the Dodgers if his club loses to the Mets on Thursday. He might even have to beat the Cubs in the National League Championship Series to save his job. From a distance, it sure seems to be a harsh reality for a manager who has won three consecutive division titles in the San Francisco Giants' division, and who is trying to win a championship with Justin Turner as his cleanup hitter.
Yes, he's got Greinke and the best pitcher on the planet, Kershaw, who silenced -- for now -- the kind of postseason questions that chased Peyton Manning all over the field until he won his ring. When Mattingly saw Kershaw fumble Yoenis Cespedes' chopper in the seventh, the manager said to himself, "Oh, here we go." But this time, Kershaw didn't crumble like he had against St. Louis in the seventh inning last year. This time, on short rest, he made his boss proud.
"This guy's an animal, the way he works, represents us, the game of baseball, himself," Mattingly said. "He's really a credit to the game, and so you're really happy for him to be able to do that tonight."
Of course, Mattingly took another big gamble by removing Kershaw after seven, a questionable move that, if nothing else, shows he's not managing afraid. Eight years ago, facing the possibility of humiliating himself before a fan base that loved him, Mattingly wasn't afraid to go for the Yankee job that Torre had vacated, the Yankee job that would go to Joe Girardi.
Girardi won a World Series, and Mattingly is still trying to get there. Still trying to make up for what was lost when he quit playing a year before the Yankees took control of the sport.
"I don't look back now and feel bad about it because I did some things family-wise that I wanted to be a part of," Mattingly said. "Even though I missed out on that winning, if you asked me now I would do the same thing because I did it for my kids, for the right reasons. That was the main thing. If I wasn't able to do things with my three boys, I would've been a lot worse off than I was by missing those [championships]."
Can he win this series against a deeper, better Mets team? Would he be able to outfox Joe Maddon in the next series and scrap the Hollywood script being written by the Chicago Cubs?
Maybe, maybe not. But this much is certain: Don Mattingly is long overdue for his big October break.