Don Mattingly had three strikes against him when he took over as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers last season.
He had never managed in the majors or minors. He had to exert greater authority over players who knew him only as a coach. And he had been a great player — a drawback, seeing as how great players rarely make great managers.
Mattingly, who turns 51 on April 20, might not be a great manager yet. But he showed signs of becoming one in 2011, and rival executives cite him as one reason that the Dodgers are an underrated threat in ’12.
Not bad for a guy whose only previous managing experience was with the Phoenix Desert Dogs of the Arizona Fall League in 2010. Yet not a surprise to the people who know him best, the people who believed he could manage long before he got the job.
Start with Joe Torre, who hired Mattingly as a coach with the New York Yankees and later included him on his staff with the Dodgers.
“I first crossed paths with him as a broadcaster,” says Torre, who worked as a color commentator for the California Angels from 1985 to ‘90, a period that roughly coincided with Mattingly’s peak as a first baseman for the Yankees. “I liked the way he carried himself.
“Then, when I took over the Yankees, he came to spring training as one of those celebrity coaches (from 1997 to 2003). When he did, he jumped in, rolled up his sleeves, helped on hitting. He was very involved. He wasn’t there to sign autographs, not that he didn’t. He was there to work.
“I told him — I don’t know when — when you’re ready to do this stuff full-time, I’ll find a spot for you. I told him, I know you can coach. And I have a sense you’ll be able to manage.”
Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti didn’t get the same up-close-and-personal look as Torre, at least not initially. But Colletti says, “I always find that you find out more about someone when you don’t need to ask.” And Colletti first started hearing about Mattingly in 1989, when he was a member of the Chicago Cubs’ front office.
A number of former Cubs employees were with the Yankees that year — Dallas Green was the manager, and Lee Elia, Billy Connors and Charlie Fox were on Green’s coaching staff.
“I stayed in touch with them, and they raved about Mattingly,” Colletti recalls. “That was not a good team (the ’89 Yankees finished 74-87). But they raved about this guy’s work ethic and how steady he was, what a good leader he was, what a good teammate.”
Years later, when Colletti was with the San Francisco Giants, he heard similar things from Mattingly’s former teammate, Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti. And then, when Mattingly was the Dodgers’ hitting coach under Torre from 2008 to ‘10, Colletti experienced first-hand what everyone had been talking about.
“He was one of the hardest-working coaches I’ve ever been around,” Colletti says. “We’d fly someplace for three or four hours, 95 percent of the time he was watching video, reading reports on the upcoming starters to help the hitters. He never took it easy. He was always steadfast with it, always relentless.”
Terrific qualities. But not the ones that define Mattingly.
The Dodgers finished 82-79, a respectable third in the NL West. Their manager’s contributions, however, went largely unnoticed by the baseball writers who voted for NL Manager of the Year. Mattingly finished in an eighth-place tie with the New York Mets’ Terry Collins, receiving one third-place vote.
It actually holds promise, grim as things appear.
The Dodgers’ payroll is down to about $90 million, not including deferred payments to outfielders Manny Ramirez and Andruw Jones.
Colletti, who made a failed run at first baseman Prince Fielder, wound up signing nine other free agents — none under the age of 31 — for a combined $45.2 million.
Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda is gone, replaced by two lesser pitchers, righty Aaron Harang and lefty Chris Capuano. Any offensive improvement likely hinges on first baseman James Loney and right fielder Andre Ethier coming up big in their respective free-agent years.
Then again, all of these conditions might be temporary.
The sale of the club is imminent; McCourt has agreed to pick the winning bidder by April 1 and close the deal by April 30. The Dodgers could exert new financial muscle at the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31.
Mattingly isn’t the type who stays up at night worrying. But for now, he says his biggest concerns are whether his offense will be consistent and whether closer Javy Guerra will repeat his outstanding rookie season.
One thing Mattingly knows: He will be a better manager in Year Two.
“Last year, everything I was doing was new,” he says. “Talking to (the media) every morning (at spring training). Talking in front of the guys every morning. Having to make the call on how we’re going to do things. A new staff.
“Everything was always breaking ground. This year, I don’t feel like I’m breaking ground. It’s the same staff. I’m more comfortable with our players. They know me. I know them better. And they know me from this seat.
“A coach can be one way, but if you put him in a different chair and all of a sudden they get a different guy, they don’t quite know who they’re going to get.”
The transition often is difficult to navigate — Mattingly previously had dealt only with hitters, not pitchers, and the relationship between player and coach often is more informal than the relationship between player and manager.
Colletti, though, says he wasn’t worried about Mattingly making the jump — he knew the players too well, they respected him too much.
Torre, knowing that Mattingly was a superstar who doesn’t act like a superstar, also was confident that his former coach would stay true to himself, stay the same guy.
As it turned out, Mattingly was even more open than Torre thought necessary.
“I always tried to defend myself when I started managing — I thought I had to,” Torre says. “He never did that. When he screwed up — I’m not sure he should have told anybody, but he did. That’s how secure he is in his own skin. And the players sense it.”
Not only that, the players love him.
“Donnie, he’s in every part of it,” says Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner. “He’s out there doing drills with us. He’s standing in (the batter’s box) during bullpens. He gives you a lot of feedback. At the same time, he’s the same every day, always in that positive mindset."
He has a way about him. A way that, no matter who owns the Dodgers, should serve the franchise well for a long time.