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Mattingly embraces chance with Dodgers

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Bob Klapisch

Bob Klapisch covers baseball for The Record in New Jersey and worked at the New York Post and New York Daily News. The author of five books, he was recently voted a top-five columnist in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

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Don Mattingly is staring at that wide-open space called the rest of his life, which is to say, the start of his managerial career. It’s a job Mattingly has always wanted, although if you asked three years ago, his Yankee blood lines would’ve never allowed him to end up in Dodger Blue.

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But Mattingly has long since gotten over the culture shock, as the cosmos swept him to L.A. along with Joe Torre. A million questions are bearing down on the rookie skipper, not the least of which is how the Dodgers plan to topple the Giants in the West.

The easy answer lies in the offense, which, while being shut out 17 times last year, finished only 11th in the National League in runs, 15th in home runs. In a perfect (financial) world, GM Ned Colletti would’ve been able to sign Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth, maybe take a run at Adrian Beltre.

Instead, while the McCourts destroy each other in divorce court, the Dodgers had to settle for Juan Uribe, one of the stars of the 2010 World Series. With 24 HRs and 85 RBIs with the Giants, Uribe will make Mattingly’s job a little easier, although Mattingly's biggest challenge will be establishing a unique identity in the post-Torre era.

It’s the same dilemma Joe Girardi faced in 2008 after a decade of Torre’s low-key professionalism. Girardi tried too hard to distance himself — he just tried too hard, period. His intensity backfired, especially down the stretch, as the Bombers ended up missing the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

The difference between the Yankees and the Dodgers, however, was money: The Steinbrenner family turbo-charged Girardi’s managerial career with the $425 million they spent on CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira that off-season. That trifecta not only propelled the Yankees to a world championship in 2009, they allowed Girardi to gain control of the clubhouse.

Mattingly doesn’t have quite the same luxury, although to be fair, the Dodgers have wisely locked up Ted Lilly and pried Jon Garland away from the Padres. Along with Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley, the Dodgers have a fine rotation, albeit a notch below the Giants’ and Phillies’.

But how much more can Mattingly extract from a team that finished just 80-82 last year? The answer keeps coming back to the manager himself: If the summer of 2010 taught us anything, it’s that a confident, competent leader can make a huge difference, evidenced by the Orioles’ sudden turnaround under Buck Showalter.

That’s Mattingly’s business plan for 2011, even though he’s missing Showalter's career body of work. Without any managerial experience, he knows the Dodgers’ fan base is watching with a mixture of hope and skepticism.

Mattingly will start by engaging the players face to face, one on one, in batting practice. That’ll be his first departure from the Torre philosophy, which limited contact with the Dodgers to only the most urgent matters. In his final years in the dugout and clubhouse, Torre turned over the team’s day-to-day machinery to his coaches.

Mattingly believes otherwise.

"I want to be on the field," he told the Los Angeles Times last month. "It's a better place to talk to the guys. It's a relaxed atmosphere. You want to make sure you know what's going on, not just with the hitters. I really look at (batting practice) as an opportunity to do that."

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Mattingly hopes the Dodgers pick up on that unique vibe, his most cherished asset. He’s calm without being soft. Knowledgeable without being brainy like Joe Maddon. He’s demanding without being authoritarian like Tony LaRussa.

These are the ingredients you’d expect from a baseball lifer; the only intangible is whether Mattingly’s personality traits can be distilled in a way the Dodgers understand. Will Mattingly get through to the temperamental Matt Kemp? Can he make Jonathan Broxton believe in himself?

Mattingly has only one template to go on — the Yankees of the early to mid-90s, the ones who were on the cusp of the Torre renaissance. “Good teams I played on . . . just the tone that they play with, the energy they play with, how they go about it,” Mattingly told the Times. “When you get it going the right way, you get everyone going in the same direction and it's a powerful thing."

Still, it takes more than nostalgia to launch a successful managerial career. Mattingly learned that lesson after 2007, when he interviewed for the job Torre had vacated. Donnie Baseball was the Yankees’ most beloved star throughout his career, yet his legacy wasn’t enough to persuade the Bombers to hire him.

Team officials say Mattingly simply wasn’t as prepared or organized as Girardi, who’d had prior experience with the Marlins and was voted the National League’s Manager of the Year in 2006. It was a wake-up call to Mattingly, who realized the requirements of running a major league team had changed radically since his days with Billy Martin and Lou Piniella. And besides, the Yankees’ snub allowed Mattingly to focus on domestic issues. His marriage of 28 years dissolved in 2008 when his estranged wife was arrested and charged with public intoxication and disorderly conduct.

Mattingly has methodically reassembled his life and career. Since ’08 he’s graduated from Dodgers’ hitting instructor to bench coach, and last month began a dry run as manager in the Arizona Fall League. As well, Mattingly re-married on Dec. 10, the final trimming for the journey ahead.

Ready or not, the Dodgers are waiting for Mattingly to save them. He’s betting he's ready.

Tagged: Yankees, Dodgers, CC Sabathia, Ted Lilly, Matt Kemp

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