Don Mattingly doesn’t have a contract to manage the Los Angeles Dodgers next year. He should. But he’s too classy to complain.
“I’m totally comfortable right now with everything,” Mattingly told me Tuesday before his team beat the archrival Giants, 2-1, at AT&T Park. “We’ve been through a lot this year. I’m just going to do my job. If at the end they don’t like it, they’ll do what they want, anyway. So why worry about it, you know?”
Mattingly’s statement was calm, reasonable and even philosophical – much like the man himself. Mattingly always has been comfortable in his own skin. That’s especially the case now that the Dodgers have clinched their first National League West title during his three seasons in charge.
Mattingly said he’s received encouragement from Dodgers officials. He praised club president Stan Kasten for being “upfront and honest.” Ownership has been “great.” But the sides aren’t currently negotiating a contract extension, Mattingly said. And he’s fine with that.
Really. He is.
“This would be the worst time to talk about something like that,” he said. “There’s no talk – and no need.”
The Dodgers’ decision-makers apparently want to wait until after the postseason to resolve Mattingly’s future. That is their prerogative. But I’m not sure what more Mattingly must do to prove that he’s the right leader for a roster priced at more than $200 million.
Yes, I remember part-owner Magic Johnson telling the Los Angeles Times the Dodgers had to reach the World Series in order to have a “good season.” But postseason results hinge on many factors beyond a manager’s control. The Dodgers’ performance over 162 games is a more accurate reflection of Mattingly as a manager; in that respect, the 2013 season stands as a ringing endorsement.
Management handed Mattingly a star-laden roster, and he shepherded his team to the playoffs. That is more than Mike Scioscia – the long-rumored Dodgers managerial candidate – can say about his Angels in 2013 (or 2012 … or 2011 … or 2010). On the final day of June, the Dodgers were last in the NL West. By July 22, they led the division. Mattingly’s refusal to panic was a major reason for the turnaround.
“He stayed the same,” Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said. “That’s the most important thing. He never really wavered. We went through stuff. Obviously he was going through stuff, too. I’m sure he was wondering about his job, just like we were. But he didn’t let us see that. His demeanor stayed the same. For us, that was huge. Donnie wasn’t mad at us. He just asked us to play and keep coming to the field every day like nothing changed. Slowly but surely, it turned around.
“We all love Donnie. We all respect him like crazy. We want to win for him. I don’t know about his personal contract, but I know that right now we want to play for him. He’s a great manager.”
Center fielder Matt Kemp said he’s “sure” Mattingly will be back in 2014. “But that’s not for me to answer,” Kemp added. “The front office and all those guys have done a great job with our organization. Me speaking, of course we want him back. We’ll see what happens whenever that time comes. I don’t think he’s worried about it or the front office is worried about it. We’re just worried about winning a World Series. He’s done a great job.”
Those who question Mattingly’s managerial acumen argue that he was merely a static element in the team’s midseason run. They argue that the Dodgers improved only because Hanley Ramirez and Zack Greinke returned from injuries around the same time Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig arrived. But that is a gross oversimplification.
In fact, Mattingly played an integral role in managing his players’ injuries – and their personalities – at the most delicate points of the Dodgers’ season, when speculation about his own job security was at a fever pitch. June 22 is frequently cited as the team’s turning point, since the Dodgers began their 42-8 run that night in San Diego – the best stretch for any team in more than 70 years, according to STATS LLC. But when I asked Mattingly to identify the Dodgers’ most important day of all, he said it might have been June 16 – the rubber match of a series in Pittsburgh.
That Sunday, Mattingly and the team’s medical staff went back and forth about whether Ramirez could play. He had only recently returned from the disabled list because of a strained left hamstring. Ultimately, the decision was made that Ramirez couldn’t start. He appeared as a pinch hitter and struck out. The Dodgers lost, 6-3.
“After that, we said, ‘You know what? We’ve got to play our guys. It’s time to play our guys,’” Mattingly recalled. “After that Pittsburgh game, I told Hanley, ‘You tell me you’re healthy, I’m going to play you.’ He wanted to play that day, and they really wouldn’t let him. He was like, ‘I’m so tired of this.’ I (said), ‘Tell me you’re healthy, and I’ll trust you that you’re healthy. Be honest with me, and we’ll do this.’ From that point forward, we started playing Hanley all the time.”
Ramirez played the next 39 games in a row, starting all but one. He batted .392 with a 1.149 OPS. The Dodgers went 29-10. By the end of that stretch, they had firm control of the division lead and never came close to giving it back.
“Everybody kept going, ‘Oh, when you guys get healthy … ’” Mattingly said. “I’m saying, ‘You know what? We are healthy. We’re back.’ We had Puig. We had Andre (Ethier). We had Carl (Crawford). I said, ‘Everybody’s here. Everybody’s back. Greinke’s back. We’re ready to roll.’ We quit talking about injuries, and we really didn’t have many more after that – knock on wood.
“A lot of factors came together: Puig came up. He gave us a ton of energy. I love giving him credit, because he excited our fans and forced a competition in that outfield for playing time. Scott Van Slyke – nobody thinks about that, but he came up and swung the bat really well. Hanley was unbelievable. Andre got hot. … Zack was starting to look like Zack again. Kersh had been rolling all year. We flipped Kenley (Jansen) to closer. That solidified the bullpen. Our role players went from playing every day to twice a week.
“Everything, all of a sudden, fell into the slots we had planned.”
That’s managing. Mattingly knows his team – more intimately now than he did in April, and probably better than at any other point since taking over from Joe Torre after the 2010 season. Star-laden teams are high-risk, high-reward propositions, because when paired with the wrong manager – see Guillen, Ozzie – the result can be an expensive, combustible failure. Mattingly, the understated Midwesterner, is the perfect complement for the Dodgers’ current cast. He was an All-Star player, so he relates to the All-Stars. But he doesn’t act like he was an All-Star player, so he relates to everyone else, too.
“If I’m proud about anything, it’s that you stay who you are, even during that rough period,” Mattingly said. “You show who you are to these guys. These guys see you in the locker room. If you’re falling apart in there and letting everything bother you, they’re going to know it.
“If you want toughness from your club, at some point you’ve got to suck that up and do your job. That’s the main thing I tried to do. Just as a player, you cut out all this other stuff out around you. Keep your head down. Do your job. If tomorrow’s your last day, or next week, do it as best you can. That’s what I tried to do.”
Torre has spoken with Mattingly to congratulate him on the division title, and Mattingly said he received a very meaningful message from legendary manager Tony La Russa. But Mattingly knows that this round of attaboys will pass very quickly. Game 1 of the National League Division Series is one week from Thursday, and the Dodgers are supposed to win – just like in April and May, when they struggled so badly.
Ironic, isn’t it? With the Yankees likely to miss the postseason for only the second time since the strike, the Dodgers will assume the mantle of October overdog – led by Mattingly, the most popular Yankee of his generation. When a Yankees manager is in the final year of his contract, speculation about his job security tends to pick up if the Pinstripes are losing, 1-0, in the first inning of Game 1. When I reminded Mattingly of that, he smiled. “I hope it’s not that fast,” he said.
It could be. The Dodgers should have announced Mattingly’s new contract by now. Instead, the West Coast Yankees will begin the postseason amid uncertainty. Good thing their manager knows how to handle it.