08/05/12 8:00 PM ET
A born leader, Mattingly perfect for Dodgers
Groomed to be a manager, former All-Star a great fit in Los Angeles
By Peter Gammons / MLB.com
-- A general manager
Matt Kemp is one of the great players in the game. That, of course, is obvious. But two years ago, when at times he was seemingly distracted and sometimes prone to throwing to the wrong base or baserunning miscalculations, there were those around the Dodgers who thought they should trade him before he fell victim to the curse of unlimited potential.
"I didn't worry about that stuff," Kemp says. "I tried to focus on what I needed to do to be the player I wanted to be. I tried never to dwell on the negative, or whatever negative was being said about me. I don't remember that stuff, I don't care about it."
Instead, Kemp ignored the negative and focused on what he wanted to be, and what his hitting coach, Don Mattingly, worked with him to become.
"Our relationship drove me," Kemp said. "He is a person that everyone trusts. He is a person who always had my back. That's who he is, that's why he is a great manager."
As well as a reason that Kemp is a megastar.
"I guess it is different today than it used to be," Mattingly said. "Managing is a lot of things. It requires a really good, imaginative coaching staff, which we're blessed to have with the Dodgers. You can get coaches who can help out with pitching changes and double-switches and when to bunt or hit-and-run. But most of all, it's about people. It's about building relationships.
"If I have to go to Matt about something he did or didn't do, that relationship allows the free flow of thoughts. Leadership in any business is about people skills, about trust, about relationships. Let's face it, Matt carries more juice in that clubhouse than almost anyone, and it's my job to help him respect the responsibilities that go along with that juice. Which he does.
"Look, this isn't about me. Sure, I had never managed when I took over [before the 2011 season]. Robin Ventura hadn't managed, and look at the job he's doing [with the White Sox]. Neither had Mike Matheny, and he is doing a fantastic job [with the Cardinals]."
One could say the same for John Farrell, who took over in Toronto with no game-managing experience a year ago, and in the words of Brian Butterfield, "had control and respect the first day because he has the best people skills of anyone I've ever met."
That resonates with Mattingly and Derek Jeter, who both credit Butterfield with their rapid progress through the Minor Leagues.
"The players have a pretty good idea what kind of player Donnie was, and why he's known everywhere as 'Donnie Ballgame,'" Dodgers GM Ned Colletti said. "They know that while the Yankee teams in his time weren't great, he was respected by everyone and loved by Yankee fans."
Indeed, from 1984-89, Mattingly averaged over 200 hits a year. He was the MVP in 1985. For his career, he had 684 extra-base hits, 588 walks and just 444 strikeouts. He won nine Gold Gloves. His career was cut short by back problems that stemmed back to his youth; as a teenager in Evansville, Ind., Mattingly was an exceptional baseball, basketball and football player. He was ambidextrous, so he threw lefty when he rolled to his left, and righty when he rolled to his right. But there were days when he couldn't go to school because his back locked up, and he had to lie flat on the floor for hours.
Former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner always remained true to his belief: "The way you judge people is how they treat others when they think no one is watching."
Every Spring Training, no matter how crazy the Yankees circus was, Mattingly would try to convince me, "We're going to be a lot better than people think."
Then when he went to coaching, when some in the organization got down on a young Robinson Cano, Mattingly once guaranteed, "He's going to be a great player. Not a good player. A great player." As he has turned out to be.
The Indians tried to hire Mattingly when Eric Wedge departed, but the Dodgers denied them permission to talk to him.
"I knew Joe Torre was only going to be with the Dodgers for a short period of time," Colletti said. "I wanted to have his successor in place, learning from him. He agreed that Donnie was the perfect person. I've only met a few like him, persons everyone trusts and respects. Dave Righetti is the same way. We all knew that in San Fransisco when I was there."
"You don't get respect by telling people to respect you just because you're the manager," Mattingly said. "You treat people with respect, and all you ask is that they give you back that respect."
"It's who he is and all the positive he believes," Colletti said. "But the players see how hard he works. When he was a coach, on every flight he'd be studying video on his laptop, breaking down opposing pitchers. Nothing's changed now that he's manager. Every flight, he's studying that video.
"Remember," Colletti added, "we didn't have a perfect situation when he took over. He'd always say, 'Concentrate on what we can control; don't complain about things because complaining is making excuses.'"
The previous era of the Dodgers was something Mattingly had to deal with and try to make things right. Savaged by injuries and short of talent, they were 55-67 last Aug. 17, but they finished three games over .500. This season, they've dealt with injuries to Kemp and Andre Ethier, as well as three relievers and three starters, and yet they are right in the mix of the NL West, a mix that has now changed with Colletti's deals for Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton, Randy Choate and Brandon League.
Managing today is not simply about matchups, shifts, double-switches and being right. It's about relationships with other human beings. Some of us can tell a lot of stories about Donnie Ballgame's human relationships, which are never about him, only about the others, never dwelling on what he dislikes, only what he hopes can and will be.
Think about where the Dodgers were last Aug. 17, compared to where they can be come October. They may be 26th in the Major Leagues in runs, 20th in on-base percentage and 28th in slugging, but they're close to first in trust, and all that entails from the clubhouse down the tunnel to the dugout.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.