Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly watches from the dugout during a game against… (Morry Gash / Associated…)
In the fall leading up to his first season as Dodgers manager, Don Mattingly was asked if he could control his frustration as he relied on players who were unlikely to ever reach the individual heights he reached as a first baseman with the New York Yankees.
Mattingly said he believed he could empathize with his players. Even though he was one of the best players of the 1980s, Mattingly said the game never came easily to him. He was a 19th-round draft pick with below-average speed and a modest throwing arm.
But as the last-place Dodgers head into the opening game of a three-game home series against the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday, the under-fire manager finds himself wondering why his players can't do what he used to do.
Mattingly's comments implying the Dodgers lacked mental toughness came in response to questions about why they had so much trouble hitting with runners in scoring position.
Mattingly, who batted .324 and drove in 145 runs when he won the 1985 American League most-valuable-player award, was a career .307 hitter and hit .314 with runners in scoring position.
The Dodgers are hitting .229 in such situations, eighth-worst in the major leagues entering Thursday. They have scored fewer runs than any team except the Miami Marlins.
In Mattingly's view, the problem is an inability to handle high-stress situations. And as someone who overcame his perceived athletic shortcomings as a player, Mattingly appears to have less patience for mental and emotional deficiencies.
In explaining why he thinks the Dodgers have trouble driving in runs, he recalled how he used to prepare himself as a player for crucial moments.
"I want to put pressure on myself all the time," Mattingly said. "So, every time I walk up there, I want to put pressure on myself that I'm going get a good pitch to hit, I'm going to hit a ball hard somewhere. That's from the very first day of spring training through the end of the season. If I can do that, just because there's a guy on second in the ninth inning with two outs, that doesn't change my thinking. My process always stays the exact same: Get a good pitch, hit a ball hard."
Mattingly shared these ideas with his players in spring training but said he hasn't always seen them applied.
"What happens to us is, nobody on base, 'Oh, it doesn't matter if I get a hit or not,' you're more relaxed, boom, you get on base," Mattingly said. "Now, you get a guy on second, it's like, 'Oh, I've got to get this guy in now.' It's a whole different mind-set and it shouldn't be. As a club, you want to put pressure on yourselves and put an expectation on yourselves that is so high that it doesn't matter what anybody would say."
Asked if he thought his players had the necessary emotional resolve to deal with that kind of constant stress, Mattingly replied, "You're saying emotional resolve, but really what that is, it's just a mental toughness that you have."
And his players have that?
"You should have it," he said. "We're in the big leagues. We're not playing Little League or T-ball."
But outside of perhaps Clayton Kershaw, is there a player in the Dodgers' clubhouse who is as mentally resilient as Mattingly was as a player?
"There are lots of guys that are tough in that clubhouse, no question about it," he said. "And I don't put myself in a category of being above any of them. . . . I was just saying what I tried to do. I wasn't able to do it all the time."
Asked if he thought there was a difference between mental fortitude and effort, Mattingly said, "Not a lot different."
So was Mattingly dissatisfied with his team's effort?
"You can't get my whole club into that category," he said.
Only Andre Ethier, whom he benched Wednesday?
"No, I didn't say any names," Mattingly said. "But there's a touch difference in just saying, 'OK, I gave you my best effort,' and basically be like willing to fight you for something. If you and I are going to go after something, we could both go after it hard, but some guys are willing to go another level for that prize. They'll do whatever it takes to beat you. It's almost something inside of you that says, 'You're not beating me today and you're not going to get me out and I'm going to make every play and I'm not going to make any mistakes.' That's one you can't measure with the sabermetrics. You can't put a number on this one. There are certain things you flat out can't put a number on."