Family's hardball legacy leads Preston Mattingly back to the hardcourt

Their dreams are his ghosts. Pitchers and catchers reported all over Florida and Arizona last week, winter’s unofficial seventh-inning stretch, the light at the end of an icy tunnel.

But that’s someone else’s celebration. Someone else’s calendar.

“I don’t really think about it at all,” Lamar guard Preston Mattingly said. “I follow it pretty closely. Just because of my dad, I try to keep up with his team. I’m really invested into that. I’m really close with his team, and that’s about it.”

It’s the 10th anniversary of Mattingly’s initial foray into minor league baseball, a decade since he was drafted out of Evansville (Ind.) Central High by the Dodgers, a legacy pick. To the SEGA Genesis generation, father Don Mattingly was an All-Star first baseman; to the Xbox One crowd, a successful manager.

“I loved playing baseball and I loved the people that I met and the relationships that I got from it,” Preston said. “To be honest with you, I don’t miss baseball at all. I struggled and had some tough years. But I love the game and I’m happy with where I’m at now.”

Now he’s a junior guard with the Cardinals, who opened the week averaging 4.8 points, a personal collegiate best. A 6-2 glue guy, a grinder who ranked second on the roster in minutes per game (23.2), third in rebounds per game (4.6) and fourth in assists per game (1.3), rekindling an old flame.

“Basketball was always my first love,” explained Mattingly, 28 and in his third season pounding the Southland Conference paint. “Baseball, it was what I was good at. It’s one of those things where I was playing and I happened to be good at it. It was just the sport that really set me up in the future, in the long term.”

Especially financially. As a multi-sport threat at Central High — he’d averaged 20.9 points per game as a senior on the varsity basketball squad — Preston had options. And questions. Baseball with the University of Tennessee? Keep a hoops door open, even just a crack? But when the Dodgers tapped him with the 31st pick of 2006 and presented a reported $1 million for him to sign, the big decisions sort of resolved themselves.

“I don’t want to say that was the only reason,” Mattingly noted. “The money was just so much that you couldn’t turn it down. It didn’t make sense to turn it down.”

After a while, though, method started to feel more like madness. Drafted as an infielder, The Son of Donnie Baseball hit .232 over six years, never progressing higher than High-A ball. The last stop was Rancho Cucamonga in 2011, and a .233 campaign that felt more like a slog.

“When you’re not going good, baseball is not fun,” said Mattingly, who’d played shortstop, second base, first base and the outfield with five clubs, mostly in the Midwest and California Leagues. “It can be a lonely game, because you’re by yourself in pretty much everything. I kind of knew, once a couple of teams release you … the writing’s on the wall of what you need to do. Some people kind of stick around. I just felt it was a good time to go back to school and play basketball.”

Dad wanted to see Preston get back on that horse. He wanted to see him get a degree. He wanted to see him succeed again, to have fun competing again.

“He wanted me to go back to school,” Preston said. “He was more excited to get to watch me play basketball again. He was behind me in whatever I wanted to do, 100 percent.”

The younger Mattingly hooked up with his old prep coach, Brent Chitty, who’d moved to Columbus East (Ind.) High, to help relearn, repurpose and recondition. For a big basketball state, Indiana can be a small world, too: Chitty also coached Pat Knight, son of Bob and then the coach at Lamar, which helped to open a door. And a soft landing at the age of 25. He’s 28 now, the old man on one of the youngest rosters in the Southland.

“Most guys don’t really care,” Mattingly said. “If I didn’t tell them how old I was, they wouldn’t even know. Once you’re out there on the court nobody really cares, other than, ‘Does this person help us win?’ That’s the way I look at it. And that’s the way my teammates look at it.

“I think that we’ve got five or six true freshmen and I’m a whole 10 years older than them. It is a little bit weird. I try to help in any way I can.”

He’s one of coach Tic Price’s secret weapons, everybody’s big brother, a font of truth on life. Careers. The real world. The pros and cons of the pros versus college.

“Obviously, the money has a little bit (to do) with it,” Mattingly noted. “But I don’t think you should (decide) solely on that. The thing is, you can always go back to school.”

After all, he’s proof. Mattingly is slated to graduate in May with a degree in corporate communications. He’d like to work with a sports franchise, and he’s got connections, obviously, at several levels. Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw is an old friend — Kershaw attended Lamar’s visit to SMU last winter — and the last name tends to open a few doors.

“There are (places) that obviously it does help with,” Preston said. “But sometimes, I think, it does hurt you a little bit, too.”

With, say, opposing crowds, for instance.

“I’ve heard all the stuff,” Mattingly said. “It kind of depends on where you go and how they haze you. If you say something crazy about me, I’m fine with that, I’ll laugh about it. A lot of times, they say the same thing over and over again.”

Such as?

“I get a lot of ‘Daddy’s boy’ things. They don’t get it. I haven’t lived at home since I was 17. When my dad was with the Yankees, I used to get the ‘Red Sox’ (chant), stuff along those lines. Baseball was worse.”

Same horse. Different color.

“When I wasn’t playing, that’s the time that you don’t realize how much you miss competition,” Mattingly said. “For me, competition is one of the greatest things in the world … just being able to compete with a team and the college guys that you’re working with every day, non-stop. It’s just been a blast.”

Above: Preston Mattingly followed in his famous father Don's footsteps for a few years, rising to High A ball, before returning to his first love — basketball — at Lamar. (Jeff Kellum/Lamar)
Middle: Don Mattingly, now manager of the Miami Marlins, spent his 14-year playing career with the New York Yankees before managing the Los Angeles Dodgers for five years. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

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