CLEARWATER, Fla. — Preston Mattingly doesn’t like to lose, and he can prove it. On a sunny afternoon, just outside the Phillies’ spring training facility in Clearwater, Fla., he points to three scars — one above his eye, one along his eyebrow, and one just below his lip.
The 34-year-old Mattingly loves these scars, and not because they make him look tough. He loves them because they represent an integral part of his journey from middling minor-leaguer to recently hired Phillies farm director. He loves them because they represent the culture he helped build at Lamar University, centered on grit and toughness and doing things the honorable way, not the convenient way.
You may not have heard of Lamar, a public school in Beaumont, Texas. Mattingly had barely heard of it himself, until he was approached by coach Pat Knight (son of Bobby Knight) who was running the school’s Division I men’s basketball program in 2013.
Mattingly was 25 years old at the time. Seven years earlier, he was a first-round draft pick of the Dodgers, who hoped he’d learn to hit like his father, Don Mattingly, a Yankee great and borderline Hall of Famer. Preston envisioned a big-league career of his own but struggled through five seasons in the minors. He didn’t get past high A.
Going to college, at that stage of his life, wasn’t an exciting prospect, but he’d come to realize it was a necessary one. After retiring as a minor-league player, Mattingly briefly had a job with Gabe Kapler, who was working at a tech company called Egraphs. He always got the sense that his friend had taken a chance on him, because he didn’t have his college degree. That feeling did not sit well, so he called his father to talk about it.
“You’re not going to get credibility without that piece of paper,” Don said. “Once you have that, it’ll open more doors for you.”
“All right,” his son responded. “But if I’m going to school, I’m going to play.”
Don knew that his son meant basketball. Of his three children, Preston was the one who shared his father’s love for that sport the most. When the Yankees first baseman was home during the offseason, he took his son to the local playground to shoot hoops. They often went to Indiana University games together, and when Preston was playing for his high school team, he snuck into the gym before class to get more reps in.
It made sense that his son, in the midst of a life change, would gravitate to the hardcourt.
Preston trained every day, for about two months, to get back into basketball shape. He held a workout in Indianapolis for teams that might be interested, which is what led him to Lamar. When he arrived, he found chaos. Players routinely skipped class, and many struggled with their grades.
Matt Hancock, a former shooting guard, remembered an altercation between an assistant coach and a player that almost turned physical. Marcus Owens, a small forward who was in Mattingly’s recruiting class, remembered players anticipating a loss before they even took the court.
“Guys were openly saying we would get beat by 30,” Owens said. “It was embarrassing.”
The Cardinals finished their season with only four wins. Knight was fired, and replaced by coach Tic Price, who was given the gargantuan task of figuring out how to turn Lamar into a winner. He held individual meetings with all of his players, in the hope that he could find someone to build his program around.
He found that player in Mattingly, and together, they began crafting a new culture.
Mattingly wasn’t the best player on the court, but he was easily the toughest. He would chase down every loose ball and, sometimes, wipe out an entire row of chairs in the process. He played the post, at 6-foot-2, out of sheer tenacity, which is how he got all of his scars, and his nickname, “Swaggy P.” He was elbowed so many times in the face by taller players that his teammates began to joke that he was “elbow height.”
Once, during his freshman year, he was hit so hard that he broke his nose. The blood rushed down his body, turning his snowy white uniform red. As the team trainer begged him to sit down, he paced around the court, eager to get back out there.
“I was like, this is my moment!” Mattingly said, with a grin. “It took them about 30 minutes to clean it up, which was actually good for me, because I could go back to the locker room and patch up my nose and play.”
When players like Owens and Hancock saw a guy like Mattingly, who was five, six, or seven years older than they were, throwing his body on the line for a team that had won only four games the year before, they thought, why can’t I do the same? Mattingly had nothing to gain. He was not going to the NBA, and he was not going to play pro basketball elsewhere. He had one, beautifully singular motive — to win — and so they began to buy in, too.
Mattingly quickly became the team’s unofficial player-coach. He preached the importance of little habits. Going to study hall was a must, as was being on time for practice. He didn’t miss weights, he didn’t miss open gym, and he didn’t miss individual workouts. He expected his teammates not to miss them either. If the team delivered a lackluster performance in the first half, Mattingly frequently gave them a stern talking-to in the locker room, long before Price even arrived.
There was a reason for all of this. When Mattingly was in the minor leagues, he didn’t understand why all of these little habits mattered, and how they could lead to long-term success. Now that he had that perspective, he was determined to impart it any chance he could.
“I made sure they knew why we were doing this,” he said. “It was about the future. At a mid-major school like Lamar, the margins were so thin. Things that seem like that they’re so far from basketball, end up being about basketball. Say you’re late to class. Well, if you’re going to be late to class, are you going to be late to a rotation on defense?
“Everything, to me, adds up to winning. It’s the same thing here, in player development. If you show up late, or you don’t prepare in the weight room, that might lead to you getting hurt. It all ties in together.”
Mattingly’s little habits worked quickly. By 2014, his sophomore year, the Cardinals had jumped from four wins to 15. They finished their season with 15 losses, their first non-losing season since 2011-12. To his coaches’ dismay, Mattingly, who was taking online classes every summer, graduated in 2016. But his culture stuck: Lamar posted four more winning seasons over the next seven years.
Developing his own identity
Don always liked watching Preston play basketball more than he liked watching him play baseball. When he watched him play baseball, he’d constantly worry about the expectations he had unintentionally set for his son. Preston, in turn, worried about any perceived nepotism. He wanted to do things the honorable way, not the convenient way.
He wanted this so badly that in high school, ahead of the 2006 MLB draft, he secretly hoped the Yankees wouldn’t say his name. When the Dodgers drafted him instead, he breathed a sigh of relief, but found himself in the situation he’d been trying to avoid two years later, when the Dodgers hired Don as a hitting coach. He distinctly remembers his father introducing himself to the new draft class in 2008, as Preston glanced at the players around him.
“They didn’t know my dad wasn’t [in L.A.] when I got drafted, so they probably assumed, ‘Preston’s here because of his dad,’” he said.
At Lamar, Mattingly was not a golden name. Most of Preston’s teammates did not know who his father was. His freshman year, Bobby Knight, a big baseball fan, paid him a visit in the locker room.
“Pull for the Dodgers tonight,” he said, in reference to Don, who was managing the Dodgers at the time.
Another teammate overheard him.
“Does your dad own the Dodgers or something?” He asked innocently.
Preston smiled. They had no idea. He decided to relish his new-found anonymity. He bought a beat-up old Ford Fusion that, 104,922 miles later, he is still driving today, and rented a simple apartment in Beaumont. Inside, was a mattress with no bed frame, a TV without cable, and a couch from Goodwill. He brought two movies from home — Major League and Bad Santa — to lull him to sleep at night. On the morning of his college graduation, he and Don had breakfast at the local Cracker Barrel.
For so long, Preston’s identity had been tied to his father. Now, he had the space to create his own, and took advantage of it. He spent hours in Price’s office, quietly observing his style of leadership.
He learned how to manage young people, and more important, how to give grace when they made mistakes. When they missed class, or missed practice, he learned the importance of explaining why that was not OK. He was tough when he needed to be, but never belittled his teammates. Everything came from a place of compassion.
Hancock remembers driving up to practice one morning in 2015 and looking over to see Mattingly looking back at him through his car window. Hancock was visibly distraught. He had recently ended a long-term relationship, and wasn’t sure if he was ready to talk about it.
“Pres just grabbed me and gave me a hug,” he said. “It was like he could sense what was going on. I didn’t have to say anything. He was just like, ‘Man, don’t even worry about it. We have practice. Let’s go to practice, and we’ll deal with this [stuff] later.’ He kept me in the moment, focusing on what was in front of me, and that was exactly what I needed.”
The work ahead
When Mattingly was announced as the Phillies’ director of player development late last year, after five years with the Padres organization, their farm system was ranked by many sites as one of the worst in baseball. Mattingly bristles at this assessment. He believes that the Phillies’ top prospects can stack up with those of any team, and that it’s only a matter of time until evaluators see that.
Even if that’s true, there’s no denying that he has work ahead of him. Last year, in an article for The Athletic, sources within the Phillies’ farm system described their culture as “toxic” and directionless. Employees weren’t able to articulate what their player development philosophy was, and the players suffered for it.
The bar can’t get much lower than that. But this isn’t a situation he’s unfamiliar with. And he’ll approach it with the same strategy he did at Lamar. Whether it’s basketball or baseball, creating a winning culture, to Mattingly, is more about those little habits than anything else.
Maybe one day, he’ll look back at the farm system he has built, and those little habits will have created something not just big, but transformative, even if he doesn’t have the scars to prove it.