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Dodgers under new management with Don Mattingly

Mattingly has been very hands-on during his first spring in charge, working on defense, pitching and toughness.

March 26, 2011|By Dylan Hernandez
  • Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly has built a reputation for working closely with his players.
Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly has built a reputation for working closely… (Lenny Ignelzi / Associated…)

Reporting from Phoenix — Mornings used to be story time at Camelback Ranch.

Cup of tea in hand and a plum pit in his mouth, Joe Torre would sit in a golf cart near the front entrance of the Dodgers' clubhouse and talk to reporters as his players stretched on a nearby practice field.

He told stories about the New York Yankees. He told stories about his playing days. He told stories about the present, revealing enough of what was happening behind the scenes to satisfy reporters but rarely enough to compromise the harmony of the clubhouse. And when he ran out of stories, well, he would often tell the same ones over again.

Torre's morning briefings frequently lasted 40 minutes or more. By comparison, his replacement as Dodgers manager is a man of few words.

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Don Mattingly speaks softly and smiles a lot. He pokes fun at reporters for the clothes they wear and pokes fun at himself for how he used to have trouble pronouncing Vicente Padilla's first name. ("Vin-cente," he used to call him.)

He's also not much of a quote. Ask him about a particular player and he might say something like, "He's good," until asked to elaborate.

Mattingly rarely sat in a golf cart when speaking to reporters this spring. When he did, he sat in the back, a step closer to where he wanted to be — the field.

And that's where Mattingly immediately headed after typically spending six to 10 minutes with reporters.

Once there, Mattingly was in the middle of everything. On the field, he didn't seem as laid back as he seemed off it.

"Donnie's really hands-on," pitcher Chad Billingsley said.

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Inheriting a team that finished fourth in the National League West last season — and added little firepower to an offense that was second-worst in baseball after the All-Star break — Mattingly stressed fundamentals in camp.

"The emphasis is on defense a lot more, I'll tell you that," Andre Ethier said. "I haven't heard about so much about defense before. There are times we're out there, we'll be doing two, three defensive drills in a row."

Closer Jonathan Broxton made a similar observation.

"We've been getting after it," Broxton said. "Pickoffs, rundowns, bunt plays, all the little stuff."

Mattingly said he didn't think defense was being emphasized any more than it had been under Torre.

"It may seem like that," Mattingly said. "Instead of having them stand on the field, we move them from one field to the other to get specialized work. We've been able to put the infielders with the pitchers. Instead of the pitchers just back there by themselves, we're able to work on timing with picks, timing with bunt plays."

Bench coach Trey Hillman, former manager of the Kansas City Royals, and bullpen catcher Rob Flippo were in charge of organizing workouts.

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Last week, the Dodgers reviewed various defensive assignments on a white board in an hourlong morning meeting. Billingsley said he didn't recall the team holding a session like that in any of his previous spring trainings.

Some of the pitchers said they were surprised Mattingly is so involved in their workouts, since he was the team's hitting coach the last three seasons.

"When we're working on pickoffs or bunt plays, he's out there and tells us what he wants, where he expects guys to be positioned," Billingsley said.

Billingsley laughed recalling how during his third bullpen session of the spring, Mattingly positioned himself at the side of home plate as if he were a hitter. Mattingly wanted to see how his pitchers looked like from a hitter's vantage point.

"Some of the guys hadn't seen a hitter in some time," Billingsley said, wondering aloud if some of the younger pitchers were nervous to pitch to their manager.

Was Billingsley scared he might hit him?

He said he wasn't.

"He knows what he's doing," Billingsley said. "When he's up there, he still looks like he can hit a little bit."

While players wouldn't say that Mattingly is easier to relate to than Torre because of his relative youth — he turns 50 next month; Torre was 70 in his final season with the Dodgers — some hitters concede that the countless hours they spent with him in the batting cages over the last few seasons helped them develop a strong bond.

"He knows a lot of us real well," James Loney said. "You can talk to him about anything, really."

But what the players said they liked the most about him was his energy.

"He loves the game with a passion," Billingsley said. "It's his first year managing a team and I'm sure he's really excited about it. I'm excited to play for him."

Billingsley said that the passion is contagious. Mattingly said he hopes that results in the team adopting the personality he has tried to mold from the first day of camp, when he said he wanted the Dodgers to be tough.

"Being prepared to play every day — that's toughness," Mattingly said. "Toughness is not throwing your helmet or breaking your bat or being mad."

Toughness is preparing yourself to play when you returned from a trip the previous night at 4 in the morning, Mattingly said. Toughness is battling a pitcher such as Ubaldo Jimenez instead of saying, "Oh, he has great stuff," and giving in.

Mattingly touched his temples with his index fingers.

"Toughness is right here," he said. "That's what we're asking them to do."

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

twitter.com/dylanohernandez

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