Over a year bled by and I didn't hear back from Mattingly. I figured he was just too busy, and even my eight-year-old self wasn't naive enough to assume he would write back. Still, I hoped.
Then, one day I came home from school and my dad told me I had received a letter from Evansville. As in Evansville, Indiana. As in MATTINGLY'S HOMETOWN!
I ripped open the envelope to find a type-written (yes, type-written) letter apologizing for the delay in correspondence. The short note was signed by Mattingly. Also included was the same baseball card I had sent him -- 1994 Topps -- signed by Donnie Baseball. I was like Indiana Jones if the Holy Grail had been delivered to his doorstep.
I bring up this story because I read a few similar ones about Bill Sharman, the Hall of Fame basketball player and coach who died a few days ago. Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer and Deadspin's Sam Eifling both wrote about Sharman's penchant for sending hand-written notes. Fowler recalled that after sending a letter to Sharman following the Lakers' 1972 title, Sharman returned a sheet of paper with the autographs of all the Lakers players.
Like Fowler with that piece of paper, I lost the note that Mattingly sent me. A casualty of two renovations of my parents' house, I guess. Still, the signed baseball card remains on a shelf in my childhood bedroom, a window into a boyhood consumed by baseball and baseball cards.
The Christmas after I received the Mattingly card, Santa brought me a mini-bat signed by Mattingly. It was cool, but it couldn't compete with the autographed card. Neither could a Sandy Koufax ball my grandma later bought for me. Or one signed by Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca that I saved up and purchased as a teenager.
The point was, Donnie Baseball took the time to sign my card and send it back to me. (Or he took the time to hire someone to do the job; let's not talk about that possibility, though.) Forget about the lack of a certificate of authenticity and the autograph's negligible monetary value. Forget about whether Mattingly knows how to manage a baseball team. Like Bill Sharman, he made at least one little boy love sports even more than would seem possible.*
*As this clip shows, Mattingly had a way with young fans.