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In Dodgers' turnaround, Don Mattingly may have come back the furthest

The Dodgers' manager has had a target on his back most of the year. But now the team is triumphant, and he's suddenly secure.

August 24, 2013|By Bill Shaikin
  • Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly, shown talking to Boston third base coach Brian Butterfield before Friday's game, suddenly seems to have job security.
Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly, shown talking to Boston third base coach… (Mark J. Terril / Associated…)

This might be the comeback of the year.

Not Zack Greinke, coming back from losing his unsolicited wrestling match with Carlos Quentin. Not Hanley Ramirez, coming back from two injuries that occurred on virtually the same dirt spot in San Francisco, six weeks apart. Not the Dodgers themselves, sprinting from last to first in three weeks.

The comeback of the year is Don Mattingly, back from the walking dead.

There is no comeback manager of the year award. But there is a manager of the year award, and Mattingly ought to have clinched it by now.

One of his bosses put a target on his back last winter. He put a target on himself in spring training. The media put a target on him in May.

He never ducked.

"I could not imagine anyone handling it with more grace than he did," said Trey Hillman, the Dodgers' bench coach.

Hillman is biased. Mattingly handpicked him for the Dodgers' coaching staff.

But Hillman has been through this, as manager of the Kansas City Royals. The story line goes from 'How bad is the team?' to 'How soon is the manager getting fired?' Then the story feeds upon itself, getting bigger and bigger until management stomps it out.

The Dodgers' management chose not to do so. Hillman and Mattingly usually share a ride to Dodger Stadium, and Hillman wondered if his carpool mate would snap. In the clubhouse, Clayton Kershaw wondered too.

"It isn't easy when your team is not playing well and you hear all these rumors flying around," Kershaw said. "He didn't let it affect his demeanor toward us. He was the exact same guy every day. He kept a positive attitude.

"Nothing changed from him, personality-wise. That was important for us."

The Dodgers are the most expensive collection of athletes in North American sports history. Little wonder, then, that Magic Johnson said this in February: "We want to go to the World Series. If we don't accomplish that, yes, it is not a good season for us."

Mattingly did not duck. In March, he said the owners should consider replacing him if the Dodgers did not make the playoffs. "If we don't win and we're healthy, they really should look at it," Mattingly said. "This team has a lot of talent."

When the Dodgers stalled in last place, and the national media launched a Mattingly death watch in May, the manager strode into the interview room — all comers welcome, all questions welcome.

"It gets to be a feeding frenzy," Mattingly said Friday. "It gets out of hand. But if you let it play its course, you can see it through. You're better off wading through the water.

"There's no reason to be angry. If you're angry, you start doing stuff you shouldn't do."

Publicly, Dodgers executives were absolutely noncommittal. Privately, Dodgers President Stan Kasten told Mattingly that management would have to consider a change if the team did not start winning.

"Stan was really honest," Mattingly said. "I appreciated that."

Mattingly said he did not ask — and was not told — how long he had before he might lose his job.

"I didn't need an answer," Mattingly said. "I didn't need him to say, 'You have 10 days' or whatever."

At one point, Mattingly might have had 48 hours, according to a high-ranking official from another major league team. The Dodgers lost the first two games of a series in San Diego on June 20-21, falling 91/2 games out of first place in the National League West and 12 games under .500.

At that point, Yasiel Puig had been up for three weeks. Kenley Jansen had been the closer for two weeks, Ramirez had been off the disabled list for three weeks, Greinke had been off the DL for five. The Dodgers had their team, and they still weren't clicking.

Had the Dodgers lost the last two games in San Diego, the official said, he had heard that Mattingly might have been done. The Dodgers won those two games, the first in a historic 42-8 run.

Kasten on Friday refused to confirm or deny that scenario of a possible firing, and for that matter refused to discuss anything about Mattingly, in a rant so animated that an onlooker told him it belonged on a sports-talk show. Kasten later apologized for the rant but not for the sentiment, saying he had tired of talking about Mattingly's status.

"I love my manager, as I always have," Kasten said.

Neither General Manager Ned Colletti nor controlling owner Mark Walter said he believed the dismissal of Mattingly ever had been imminent. Walter, in fact, went so far as to say he expected Mattingly would be the Dodgers' manager next year.

"I can't imagine he's not," Walter said.

Mattingly is well aware of the truism that the manager gets the blame and the players get the credit. He doesn't mind.

"The guys are playing really well right now," he said. "Am I managing that differently? Not really."

Colletti said Mattingly has "learned a lot" through tough times. Neither Colletti nor Mattingly would offer specifics, but we would propose one. Joe Torre, who brought Mattingly to the Dodgers and mentored him as a successor, tried the old-school approach with Matt Kemp. If Kemp messed up, Torre would keep him out of the lineup card and leave it to Kemp to ask why.

Puig is a singular talent, but Mattingly has met with him repeatedly to discuss his fundamental gaffes rather than sit him and see him stew. Since the Dodgers have been anointed as Team TMZ, Puig apparently is going to have a camera in his face whenever he enjoys a night out. That could blow up at any time, and whatever relationship Mattingly develops with Puig now could save the Dodgers' season later.

It is an uneasy balance, but this has been an uneasy season. It also has been a surprisingly triumphant one, for the Dodgers and their suddenly secure manager.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Twitter: @BillShaikin

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