It is starting to look natural now, the vibrant Dodger blue that Don Mattingly wears every day. He had always been a Yankee, as a player and a coach, but this is his fifth season out of pinstripes. His new legacy is steadily growing.
Mattingly is the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who at 18-10 are tied with the Washington Nationals for the best record in the National League. In the visitors’ dugout Friday, before a series at Wrigley Field, he said he never wondered how his life would have unfolded if the Yankees had hired him, instead of Joe Girardi, to replace Joe Torre after the 2007 season.
In fact, Mattingly said, he is grateful. His personal life was falling apart then, with a divorce from his wife, Kim, and the Yankees’ job could have overwhelmed him.
“Honestly, going through it, after 28 years, it was just like pain,” Mattingly said. “I couldn’t hardly eat, much less try to manage a ball club, the first one I’ve ever had a chance to manage. And if I could hardly eat, how was I going to be able to deal with all that? So it was one of those that you go, ‘Thank God for not getting that job.’ That was a blessing.”
Mattingly followed Torre to Los Angeles, where Torre had been named the manager. He took time to deal with his family and joined the Dodgers as the hitting coach after the 2008 All-Star break. Mattingly replaced Torre at the end of the 2010 season, and married his new wife, Lori, that December.
Things are good now, Mattingly said, off the field and, clearly, on it. The Dodgers have taken advantage of a soft early schedule, giving added momentum to a franchise that is finally under new ownership.
The Guggenheim Baseball Management group, which paid $2.15 billion for the team, was introduced at a news conference Wednesday at Dodger Stadium. By Friday morning, the new president, Stan Kasten, was meeting with Mattingly in the cramped visiting manager’s office at Wrigley.
“I’m really looking forward to spending time with a guy who, when I broke into baseball in the mid-1980s as a team president, there was a block of time when he was the best player in baseball,” Kasten said. “So it’s exciting for me to work with a guy who had not just the physical skills, but the intellect and discipline to reach that level. It’s fun to see him translating it to managerial skills, which he’s obviously doing.”
Ned Colletti, the Dodgers’ general manager, hired Torre with the understanding that Torre would manage only two or three seasons. For the sake of continuity, Colletti said, he wanted the successor to come from Torre’s staff, and he eagerly agreed to let Torre bring Mattingly.
Colletti had worked for the Cubs in the 1980s, when Dallas Green ran the team. Green managed the Yankees in 1989, when Mattingly was their star, and he would rave to Colletti about Mattingly’s leadership and intellect as a player.
Last season, Colletti saw that leadership up close, when embarrassing details emerged about the reckless personal spending of the owner at the time, Frank McCourt. Mattingly, who was well trained in distractions from years under George Steinbrenner, reminded the players they had nothing to do with ownership and should not waste time worrying about it.
Even more important, Colletti said, was the way Mattingly pushed a team that was 14 games under .500 on July 6. The Dodgers won 11 of their last 12 series and 25 of their last 35 games, matching Arizona for the best record in the league after Aug. 21. The Dodgers finished 82-79.
“A lot of times when you’re a dozen games out or you’re under .500 by 14 games, especially with a veteran club in a big market, they have a tendency to go the other way,” Colletti said. “He kept them going. He kept their focus, he made every day special. Every day was its own game. When the team could have teetered, he didn’t let them.”
The Dodgers got sterling performances from center fielder Matt Kemp, runner-up for the NL Most Valuable Player award, and left-hander Clayton Kershaw, who captured the NL Cy Young Award. Colletti re-signed Kemp for eight years last winter, but otherwise made smaller moves, giving two-year deals to veteran starters Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang and infielders Jerry Hairston Jr. and Mark Ellis.
All have played well so far, and Kemp has been the best player in the game, hitting .388 with 12 homers and 27 runs batted in to make his $160 million contract seem like a steal.
“He’s as good as it gets,” Hairston said. “I’ve played with a lot of great players, and he’s got everything. He can run, hit for power, hit for average. The great thing about him is he wants to be that leader, not just on the field but vocally, too. He doesn’t shy away from it, and he doesn’t put limits on himself.”
Mattingly, the American League MVP in 1985, can identify with any star. But as a former 19th-round draft pick who excelled on several losing teams, he also appreciates the grind. Players said his ability to relate, and deal with them directly and honestly, made a difference.
“He’s so positive,” Kershaw said. “All he asks of us is just go out there and play the way we’re supposed to. Do things the right way on the field, and he’s happy with you. When it’s simple like that, it’s easy to play for, and it’s fun to play for.”
Mattingly said it was Steinbrenner who first told him he would make a good manager. Mattingly was playing then, and said he rolled his eyes. But in the lean years, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mattingly found himself paying more attention to opposing managers, like Tony La Russa in Oakland.
The Athletics dominated the league, but Mattingly said they never seemed satisfied to play down to the Yankees’ level. He admired how La Russa’s competitiveness filtered to his players.
“They’d come in and just step on our neck and just beat the dog out of us,” Mattingly said. “I loved the way those teams played, and that always interested me, bringing your attitude to the game to your whole team as a manager. That’s always been the biggest challenge.”
The Dodgers are not winning the way those Oakland teams did. They had played 13 one-run games, winning nine, and have little power besides Kemp and Andre Ethier. But they showed late last season and continue to show now that they reflect Mattingly’s ethos.
“I go back to respect with these guys,” Mattingly said. “There were a lot of guys that went before us, and we honor the game by playing the game right. The fans come every day. You’re 10 up or 10 back, they’re showing up. They want your best effort. Out of respect for the fans, they deserve your best every day, to the organization itself and then to each other. So we have an obligation to play the game right, and that’s all you ask.”
For a team that has not won a pennant in 24 years, and a fan base eager for a fresh start, that seems like a sound principle.