02/15/11 10:50 PM EST
An icon in NY, Mattingly seeks success in LA
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
The line of fans waiting for Don Mattingly? There was no line.
He sat beside former Dodger Tommy Davis, more than 4,000 Major League hits between them in relative obscurity.
"What have you done for me lately?" Davis asked with a wink and a smile.
At least in Los Angeles, so true. Mattingly is an icon in New York -- Donnie Baseball -- with a plaque in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium and his uniform number retired.
But in Los Angeles, he's mostly a familiar name in an unfamiliar role. He embarks on his first season not only as manager of the Dodgers, but as a manager period, except for a brief cram course in the recent Arizona Fall League and a forgettable mound misstep as an emergency sub for Joe Torre a year ago. He comes off a third season as hitting coach of a team that didn't really hit.
He was groomed by Torre and passed over to replace him in New York, then selected to succeed Torre on the other coast by general manager Ned Colletti six months before it was announced. Colletti's mind was made up over the course of several decades as he heard every baseball man he trusted rave about Mattingly's baseball knowledge, leadership skills and that hard-to-define intangible.
"There's a trait you don't know about unless you see it day by day -- great players have that extra gear when it comes to a key at-bat or pitch," said Colletti. "It's a little extra that leaves everybody else behind. And that's what this man possesses."
Mattingly, who will turn 50 in April, brings a resume of six All-Star selections, an MVP Award, nine Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers, a batting average and RBI title. He was headed toward the Hall of Fame when chronic back issues cut short his career.
Now he takes over a team that finished an underachieving fourth in the National League West, one that makes as many headlines by ownership uncertainty as wins and losses. Skeptics wonder if he's ready, if budgetary restrictions kept Colletti from giving him a full hand with which to play, if the young core can rebound, if he's been put in a situation to succeed or fail.
Mattingly knows there are land mines out there.
"I feel good going in," Mattingly said. "What has happened in the winter gives me more confidence. Am I confident? The baseball stuff I'm the most confident with. Dealing with stuff through the winter, communicating with the players and making sure they understand where I'm coming from. I don't want them to be surprised. The Fall League helped me more than I thought. I know I've got a lot to learn. I'm not naïve."
He knows there are huge question marks. He knows he's not working for a team that can throw cash at every problem. And he's not complaining about it.
"Last year, I felt we were able to play with anybody out there. Nothing bothers me on the playing side of it," Mattingly said. "The stuff in the papers, the ownership, had zero impact on anything we did this winter. I talk to Ned almost every day and not one discussion other than make the club as good as it can be. It's been all baseball, pure and simple. We've got a budget, but other teams do, too. You see Minnesota, Tampa Bay and they compete. The budget doesn't hold them back. We just have to play better baseball. Anybody who says that other stuff is holding us back, I think those are just excuses, I really do. The Dodgers will never be New York, just buy, buy, buy. It never happened in L.A. But it's not like we have no budget."
Mattingly won over owner Frank McCourt in 2 1/2 years as batting coach.
"Don works hard," McCourt told a group of season-ticket holders recently. "He really had an approach to the game that he exhibited as player and will continue to exhibit as a manager, a very deep, solid work ethic. He played the game the right way; he'll manage it the right way."
Tom Lasorda, who rode a 21-season reign as Dodgers manager into the Hall of Fame, offers this advice:
"He's got to earn the respect of the players and has got to give them respect, and it all starts in Spring Training," said Lasorda. "I always felt the season was determined in the spring. Think you're a first-place team from the start, practice like a first-place team and play like one and that's where you'll finish. His biggest job is to get the maximum effort from every player."
Mutual respect seems to be there. Mattingly has had a running dialogue with his players during the offseason and they seem sincerely happy he's in charge.
"Donnie knows the ins and outs of the game, he's been around Joe and learned a lot and he's a really good communicator with us," said first baseman James Loney. "I don't know anybody that doesn't like him personally. He knows us, it's not like he's coming in and we're all strangers. He relates to you."
Center fielder Matt Kemp endorsed Mattingly the day he was named to replace Torre.
"He knows how to talk to you," said Kemp, who had issues with the staff last year. "He keeps it 100 [percent] with you. He doesn't hold back anything. He's very positive and he brings out the best of your ability. I like our chances with him, I really do."
Mattingly will wear No. 8, he said in honor of Yogi Berra, but he said his loyalty is otherwise Dodger Blue.
"I had great fortune playing in New York, but I'm proud to be part of this organization and continue to build on what the organization has done over the years," Mattingly said. "I have no rings. I want my first year as a manager to be a lot like Joe's. He didn't get any rings as a player and got four or five in New York. I plan to get four or five out here."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.