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BILL PLASCHKE

Dodgers' Don Mattingly gives 'em the shirt off his back

The manager's down-to-earth demeanor creates a clubhouse culture that encourages players to be themselves – even in the middle of a division title race.

September 04, 2012|Bill Plaschke

To understand how Don Mattingly is trying to survive a pennant race while arranging all these new pieces in the Dodgers wardrobe, one need only look in the manager's own closet.

First, check out his jersey. He wears number 88. It is his third number this season, a record for Dodgers managers, who have sometimes worn the same number for two decades.

"I don't think anybody really notices, do they?" he said with a grin.

Well, the folks in the clubhouse have noticed. There are three locker name plates hanging from his door. Mattingly began the season wearing the No. 8 he donned when he joined the Dodgers, a number honoring Yogi Berra. But then when Shane Victorino was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies on July 31, Mattingly gave it up.

"He never pushed me for it, but I noticed it was part of his email address, and that was enough for me," Mattingly said.

At that point, he randomly picked No. 12, but that lasted only one day. He realized it belonged to Justin Sellers, a Dodgers infielder who was on the disabled list with a back injury that would soon end his season.

"There is no way I'm taking the number of a player who might have gotten healthy, I could never do that," said Mattingly.

So he settled on 88 because he figured no player other than a spring-training longshot would ever come close to matching it. Turns out, the number wasn't the only thing that grew — so did his players' respect for him.

"He has such credibility with us because he is so real about everything," second baseman Mark Ellis said.

After looking at Mattingly's jersey, check out his glove. He won nine Gold Gloves at first base for the New York Yankees, yet today, playing catch during warmups, he wears a piece of leather that belonged to someone who never played a day in the major leagues.

The glove was owned by Mike Kashirsky. The name is grandly stitched across the fingers. Kashirsky is a batting practice pitcher for the Chicago White Sox when he is a not a bench coach for the Schaumburg (Ill.) Boomers of the independent Frontier League.

During spring training this year, Kashirsky worked for the Dodgers, and Mattingly liked the lighter feel of his glove, so they traded, making Kashirsky the coolest guy on diamonds from Illinois to Missouri.

"I think I got the better part of that deal," Mattingly said.

If you ask me, the Dodgers got the better part of the deal that brought Mattingly here, his down-to-earth demeanor steadying the team during this exciting but unsettling time, Donnie Baseball giving the Dodgers as much hope as A-Gon and Han-Ram.

"He's the kind of manager who lets us go out there and win," Ellis said.

There was some thought that Mattingly, whose performance is surely being closely watched by owners who aren't throwing all of this money at the idea of second place, was struggling last week when his team was shut out by the Arizona Diamondbacks for their fourth loss in five games.

The new players didn't seem to be meshing with the guys who were here. There was a strangeness in a clubhouse whose chemistry was a big reason for last season's strong finish. Friends had been lost, strangers had to be welcomed, a culture had to be explained.

So the manager closed the clubhouse doors and delivered what he called a "state of the union" address that was typical Mattingly. It lasted about 15 minutes. There was no overturning of buffet tables or throwing of equipment. There was only the simplest of themes.

"It was basically, we're fine, just screw it and go play," Mattingly said. "Get ready to play from the first out to the last out, leave it all on the field, and no matter what happens, you'll walk away with no regrets."

The Dodgers lost the next night, then won three straight, including two in their final at-bat, before losing, 6-3, to the Padres in 11 innings Tuesday.

Watch Mattingly leaning casually over the dugout railing and you would think it is April. But watch his Dodgers intensely play these last few games and you know it's September.

"I want them to just be themselves, I don't want them to change because of the pennant race," said Mattingly.

"So I have to be the same guy I always am."

This is a guy who, unlike other managers, actually admits there is scoreboard watching.

"Everybody watches the scoreboard, what are you going to do, turn it off?" he said. "I know we shouldn't care, but we're human, and everybody watches, including me."

This is a guy who admits he doesn't know it all, but promises to figure it out, a promise each of his players has taken to the field in the chase for the team's first World Series championship in nearly a quarter of a century.

"I try to create an atmosphere where guys love it here and they play their butts off," said Mattingly, ol' No. 88 batting 1.000.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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