Don Mattingly's first season as a major league manager wasn't… (Christopher Hanewinckel…)
From Phoenix — The question heard most often regarding the Dodgers: So how do you think Don Mattingly did as a manager his first year?
Does it matter?
The Dodgers are no longer the Dodgers that most people regarded with fondness for so many years.
The expectation is that Frank McCourt will be gone one day, a new owner arriving to fumigate the place, starting fresh from top to bottom to get the fans excited again.
Thank goodness they love you in New York, Donnie Baseball.
"When you say things like there will be a new ownership group coming in, blowing it all up and they'll be getting a [new manager], I don't worry about it because I know I can do this," says Mattingly. "Now more than ever."
Some people apparently put more stock in finishing third in the West Division than others.
But a few minutes later Mattingly is nearly moved to tears, and I haven't even mentioned he'll have to find a place to play Juan Uribe next season to justify his high salary.
"I get emotional when I talk about how proud I am of this team," Mattingly says, and I wonder how he might gather himself if they ever win enough to advance to the playoffs.
"I feel like we have represented the organization well, and while you can say this or that about the talent level, it doesn't have anything to do with the way you play the game and the way you represent baseball, the fans of L.A. and the Dodgers organization."
Or, as GM Ned Colletti puts it, "He's done a good job. I don't think we've made it easy for him, but I think his greatest accomplishment this year was he kept the thing together."
The Dodgers' unsettled ownership situation seems to make this more of a managerial audition than a chance for Mattingly to establish himself as a Los Angeles fixture in the dugout.
"My long-terms goals," says Mattingly, "are to win championships and be here a long time. I want to be a manager here until it's time to retire. And I mean that.
"I know people think I want to be in New York … "
That might have something to do with the plaque in his name in Yankee Stadium, which reads: "A humble man of grace and dignity, a captain who led by example, proud of the pinstripe tradition and dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, a Yankee forever."
Right away Mattingly says, "True, and I will be a [Yankee] forever. I gave them everything I had as a player, and the fans know I loved playing there, loved being there and I wanted to manage there.
"But you know what, I didn't get the job. I'm a Dodger and really feel like that now.
"I look at Maury Wills and he becomes Yogi [Berra] for me. I'm right where I want to be."
So far Mattingly has come across as mostly nondescript, lacking the intensity that just oozes from someone like Kirk Gibson. The feeling here in Arizona is that Gibson insisted the Diamondbacks play better, and so they won a division title.
Mattingly, meanwhile, doesn't yell or scream. "Haven't done it once this year," he says.
He says, "People shy away from confrontation," in reality describing himself. But he says he learned from Joe Torre it's best "to not let things fester, and so I push myself to address things right away."
Colletti says, "Don't let him fool you. He's got his own degree of intensity; he's not somebody you want to fool with or disappoint."
Mattingly, while sometimes coming off like a Walmart greeter, says he doesn't have to get along with his players, but they should know what's behind his thinking.
"There were times when I had to tell [Tony Gwynn Jr.] I couldn't play him as much as maybe I should because we had three little guys in the lineup already. He may not have liked that, but he understood where I was coming from."
He says he had maybe six team meetings this season, not one to prattle on or get in their faces after a tough loss.
"I think guys get me," he says. "I was intense as a player, but these are the guys that are playing now. I'm not Tommy Lasorda. I'm consistent in my reactions, and the players know what to expect."
When he throws things, and he does, he says, "it is this book," while lifting a black binder off his desk. "I do it when I'm angry and alone in my office."
It doesn't happen often, but he can surprise you, saying Uribe will have to compete to earn a starting job next season while already naming Dee Gordon his starting shortstop.
He says the Dodgers could have been fighting for a playoff berth to the end had injuries not staggered the team. He's dreaming — the Dodgers had an expansion-roster feel to them in March and the last two days of the season.
The Dodgers allowed Arizona to score six runs in the final inning Tuesday night, another five in the final inning Wednesday, and they weren't pitching Jonathan Broxton. Nice finishes.
"I know we have to be better," Mattingly says, and while not saying so, it's maybe his only chance to impress the next owner.
Asked for his imprint to date on the team, he says, "consistency," the same way he approached the game as a hitter.
Add it all up and there is no question he's a nice guy. And while on track earlier to finish where nice guys do, he found a way to get more out of his players and win 16 more games than they lost down the stretch.
As rookie debuts go, it was something to build on.
And if he continues to develop, he might make a great, great manager one day for another baseball organization.