Senior Baseball Columnist

Mattingly finds success, peace as Dodgers prepare for second half of season

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Mattingly and the Dodgers are all smiles now, but it wasn't like that last season. (Getty Images)  
Mattingly and the Dodgers are all smiles now, but it wasn't like that last season. (Getty Images)  

LOS ANGELES -- Midmorning, and you can see first place from Don Mattingly's deck. Sunshine and blue skies for miles. Palm trees and smiles. Lineup cards stocked with winning players and all the right moves.

The clear view is utterly unexpected. All those storm clouds that have chased him for two years ... where the heck are they?

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"Second time around, you're a lot more comfortable," Mattingly says. "Before, everything was the first time. First spring camp. First talk to the team. First confrontation with somebody.

"The pitching part has become easier for me because I know our guys a lot better. You can almost read body language better. Things are easier to see."

The Frank McCourt tsunami has receded. On this morning, the under-new-ownership Dodgers have lost eight of their past nine games, and 12 of 14, and are decimated with injuries. But, by the All-Star break, under Mattingly's steady hand and quiet guidance, here they are, back atop the NL West.

Two blocks away, swimmers are diving into the Pacific Ocean surf in a scene straight from a Beach Boys song. Sailboats bob along in the breeze. Around the corner, a taco shop is making killer breakfast burritos.

Mattingly plops down onto the plush leather sofa in his family room and soaks in the salty air. Barefoot, he is wearing blue jeans and a green T-shirt. In two hours, as they do for nearly every home game, he and bench coach Trey Hillman will drive to Dodger Stadium together.

From Manhattan to Manhattan Beach, Donnie Baseball to Donnie Manager.

"I love it," he says. "Love it."

As they prepare to start the second half at home against the Padres on Friday night, Mattingly's Dodgers since last season's All-Star break are 88-68, a full 20 games above .500. This despite MVP candidate Matt Kemp missing 51 of 87 games so far this summer (he will be activated from the disabled list for Friday night's game).

"I was proud of that club last year big time," Mattingly says. "I felt we played the game right. If you didn't like that team, something was wrong with you. And it's continued through to this year."

He reminds general manager Ned Colletti a lot of Joe Torre, the manager who brought Mattingly west as a part of his coaching staff in 2008. Mattingly's communication skills, his ability to manage people, understand a player's perspective, recognize when a player needs a day off or when he needs to hear something he maybe doesn't want to hear ... "that stuff is what earned Joe respect for decades," Colletti says.

Last year's Dodgers were 41-51 at the All-Star break, headed straight for the rocks. Mattingly steered them back on course to a surprising and respectable 82-79 finish.

"By the midpoint of last year, I think he had gained some speed on the speed of the game," Colletti says. "As we got to this point last year, it was probably one of the most pivotal times for him. We were a dozen games out. We went to 14 under .500 at one point. The team had expectations and suddenly was not going to win the division, maybe not even finish .500.

"You have a veteran team used to winning. Two years earlier it was in the NLCS, three years earlier it was in the NLCS. A club like that can go one of two ways. Many times the opposite way, lose focus, go 20 games under, 25 out, whatever.

"What he was able to do, with his staff and with his players, was because the players have huge respect for this man."

  

Midyear, and Mattingly's work in his second season has been so consistently good that he has been able to step out from Torre's shadow as deftly as he once banged out those 2,153 career hits during his 14-year career with the Yankees.

"I looked at is as normal," Mattingly says of critics who (wrongly) figured the only reason he was handed the Dodgers' job was because he was sponsored by Torre. "When you get called up as a player, you get told what you can't do. A guy can't run, or he can't hit for power. The only way to change people's opinion is to play.

"It's the same as a manager. I understood people saying I had no experience. It's always a Catch-22 situation, right?

"I didn't worry. Over time, you stay true to your values, to what you believe in as a player, as a manager, as a person.

"If that's not good enough, then you're not good enough."

After retiring as a player in 1995, he spent seven seasons as a guest instructor with the Yankees during spring training before joining the Yankees' staff full-time as hitting coach under Torre in 2004.

When Torre left the Yanks after the 2007 season, Mattingly and Joe Girardi were the finalists to replace him. New York, of course, chose Girardi. Mattingly, whose No. 23 is retired by the Yankees, went west with Torre to Los Angeles.

"I didn't look at it like I got slapped in the face," Mattingly says. "Joe is a good baseball person. He's a good guy. He had been a Manager of the Year [with the Marlins].

"I don't want to be handed anything. There were no guarantees when I came here. There were no deals. You have to earn people's respect. It was good for me.

Mattingly and the Dodgers are all smiles now, but it wasn't like that last season. (Getty Images)  
Mattingly and the Dodgers are all smiles now, but it wasn't like that last season. (Getty Images)  
"And what a blessing. I've always loved California. When I played here for the first time [as a rookie in 1983], we came here and it was a cool night, crisp and beautiful. I had a buddy take me to Malibu and I was thinking, 'This is it, right here. This is awesome.'"

Had he become a free agent as a player, Mattingly says, a California team would have been his first choice.

"No doubt," he says. "Coming here was awesome. And getting a look at the National League has been great. It's such a different game. Trey and I talk about that all the time. Without a DH, it's such a better game. It seems like the way the game should be played.

"I'm sure I'll get a lot of DH people mad, but a pitcher should hit."

The word he uses to describe his rookie summer in which the Dodgers were plunged into bankruptcy by McCourt, seized by Major League Baseball and put up for sale is "chaotic."

But in a way, he says, it helped sharpen the message he's preached and will continue to pound into his players for however long he does this job: Take care of things on the field, then simply handle the rest as best as you can.

You never know when one part of your life is preparing you for the next. Turned out, in no small way, playing for George Steinbrenner's Yankees helped mold Mattingly to manage McCourt's Dodgers. With the circus in full throttle around them last season, the only available option to Mattingly and Colletti was to take cover and keep the players pointed toward the field.

"Playing in New York hardens you to circumstances," Mattingly says. "Last year, it felt like we had no voice. Nobody was speaking for us. Nobody said, 'This is the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of the greatest franchises in organized sports, and we're driving in this direction.' "I was starting my first year as manager, and I'm thinking, 'Nobody is talking for us. Nobody is guiding us.' Finally, I was like, 'Screw it. This is how I think we should handle it.' Even with attendance going down, there were still some people there paying to see us, and watching us on TV. And we had to give them our best effort.

"The Dodgers were kind of a joke last year. It was easy to make fun of the Dodgers. You take those shots, you hold your head high and you keep working to represent to the best of your ability."

One aspect of managing he was not privy to during his apprenticeship under Torre was the daily communication that goes on between a manager and a GM. That, too, has been an education.

"Ned is a locker-room guy, and I love that," he says. "In building a club, Ned tells me, 'I will never force a guy on you who you've heard bad stuff about, somebody who's a big jerk. That's a great feeling."

They talk every day and, as Colletti says, "rarely do five or six days go by in the dead of winter when we don't talk."

Colletti says it took Mattingly a little while to understand that "constant conversations were going to be taking place", noting that the GM-manager relationship must stay strong.

"Without it, you're going to need an All-Star team of players that don't really need much except a touch of guidance here and there," Colletti says. "He's learned if you see a player on another club you really like, you can't just get on the phone and acquire him. He's never surprised by a player we add. He doesn't wake up in the morning and say, 'Oh, we got this player?' I think it's totally unfair to have a player in the room he's not comfortable with. Just like it's not fair to have a player on the roster that I don't want."

  

Midsummer, and the rave reviews are stacking up as Mattingly settles into his managerial career.

"First and foremost, he's a good person," outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. says. "One thing that stands out to me is, he hasn't forgotten how hard the game is.

"I've played for managers who won't even look at you when you're struggling. He's one of two managers I've had -- Bud Black [of the Padres] being the other -- who aren't like that."

Kemp and second baseman Mark Ellis each have missed more than half the season, an oblique injury knocked Andre Ethier out of the last 11 games before the break and closer Javy Guerra pitched just one-third of an inning in June.

No matter, Mattingly continues to ace the most severe test administered to any manager: His players respond.

Mattingly and the Dodgers are all smiles now, but it wasn't like that last season. (Getty Images)  
Mattingly and the Dodgers are all smiles now, but it wasn't like that last season. (Getty Images)  
"We've been hit with the injury bug probably as much as anybody, and he's been very calming," infielder Jerry Hairston Jr. says. "He doesn't overreact. His biggest thing is, 'Listen. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. As the Dodgers, we're expected to win. That's the bottom line. No excuses.'"

A story: First day of an April series in Houston this year, it's Mattingly's birthday and the players bring a massive cake into the food room in their clubhouse. Hillman is dispatched to Mattingly's office to keep him busy while everyone else convenes in the food room: Players. Coaches. The Dodgers' baseball operations staff who are on the trip. The medical staff. Strength and conditioning folks.

They're hiding in the dark like a bunch of kids, candles on the cake ablaze. Everyone in place, someone signals Hillman, who brings Mattingly, and they all jump up and sing a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday."

"I've been in this game for 30 years and I've never seen that with a manager," Colletti says. "It showed how much the players like and respect him.

"It wasn't a simple fist pump. It wasn't a simple, 'Hey, Donnie, happy birthday.'"

It was elaborate and it was from the heart. Over six months and 162 games, there are moments when the bunt play or the hit-and-run will backfire and a game will be lost. But when there are moments of laughter and affection, rarely will a season be lost.

Colletti over the years heard so much about Mattingly before they even met from old baseball colleagues like Dallas Green, who managed Mattingly's Yankees in 1989, and Lee Elia, Charlie Fox and Billy Connors.

Years later, when Colletti was with the Giants, he heard similar things about Mattingly from pitching coach Dave Righetti. Tough-minded. Hard worker. Great teammate.

When Colletti was hiring Torre, he asked Torre how much longer he would like to manage. Two or three years, came the reply. That's fine, but I'd like some continuity, Colletti said. How would you feel about having your eventual replacement on your staff?

Great, Torre said. But as you think about someone to replace me, get to know Donnie. See how hard he works. I think you'll be pleased.

"That's all Joe Torre ever told me about Don," Colletti says. "I watched Don Mattingly as our hitting coach for three years. On flights, players and coaches usually watch movies, take naps, play cards, all sorts of other activities. If we had a three-hour flight, Don Mattingly for two-and-a-half hours was looking at pitching and hitting videos to help his hitters.

"Even today, on the plane, we sit across the aisle from each other and rarely do I look over and he's not looking at some scouting report or video. He takes nothing for granted."

Across the field, rival managers note how Mattingly has developed the ability to slow down a game as he's become more comfortable and more confident in the manager's chair.

In the stands, scouts marvel over how Kemp emerged from his 2010 funk into an MVP-type player under Mattingly.

"He's been a big help," Kemp says. "What's going on with our success, with my success. He's definitely a confidence-booster.

"He's just a cool guy in all ways. He's helped me a lot in my career. Where I was, to where I am. And I thank him for that."

Mattingly was a 19th-round draft pick as a player, and Colletti likes to tease him that there were two Hall of Famers chosen ahead of him in that 1979 draft: John Elway and Dan Marino, each of whom landed in the, ahem, Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But there is respect in that teasing, the understood point being that Mattingly's hard work and drive pushed him to heights that few baseball men would have predicted out of that 19th round: AL MVP in 1985 on a Yankees team that did not win. A batting title in 1984 at .343.

"He is bound and determined to do the same thing from the manager's seat," Colletti says. "And I see him doing it."

  

Midlife at 51, Mattingly, manager of a first-place club primed for a second-half alley fight, remains the same humble, soft-spoken guy as ever.

"I'm shy in general," he says. "I think maybe the shyness has led me to listen. I'm not always wanting to jump out and talk. I'm not always wanting to give my opinion. I've never had problems getting along with people.

"Having to speak up and let guys know how I feel, that part of managing is getting easier. In my mind, it's important to address problems right away. We might not solve it, but at least you get it out."

Mattingly has learned how to speak his mind with everyone, even umps. (Getty Images)  
Mattingly has learned how to speak his mind with everyone, even umps. (Getty Images)  
Mornings, he often clears his head by walking on the beach, or riding his bicycle along it. A biography of Pete Maravich sits on his coffee table and, this morning, a women's match from Wimbledon is on the flat screen in his family room.

He loves to watch sports on television, especially basketball, football and tennis. He enjoys reading books about people and leadership. As you would expect from a proud Hoosier, he's read much of what John Wooden has written, and some of NBA executive Pat Williams' writings.

"You don't realize how much influence you can have just by treating people right," Mattingly says.

"First manager I've ever had who's in chapel with us every week," Gwynn says.

He is a native of Evansville, Ind., and still lives there during the winter. He has three grown sons -- Taylor (27), Preston (25) and Jordan (24) -- with his first wife. He married his second, Lori, two Decembers ago and now is father to two step-sons, Reynolds (14) and Isaac (12).

His life now is completely different from what it was in Indiana growing up ... and from what it was all those years ago in New York.

"I feel really blessed," Mattingly says. "I love it. It's a different kind of beauty out here.

"I had a cool apartment in New York, an unbelievable, panoramic view of the city. All of the concrete buildings, so many great views. It was like life was encapsulated. Once you parked your car, you could do everything within two blocks. There was a pharmacy, dry cleaner, 10 great restaurants ... it was like its own little neighborhood."

The other night, with Lori and the kids in town, they went out walking and bumped into a chili cook-off in this little beach neighborhood.

"In Indiana, I grew up on a block playing tag or seeing how many times we could go around the block doing wheelies," he says. "Here, kids are surfing. It's so cool to get to experience all of that.

"You'd see the same people walking on the corners in New York, the same older ladies. Here, you see the same kids and people out walking."

It is a full life, baseball and family, and managing and people.

"It is," he says. "I don't know what's going to happen here with me. In baseball, you just don't know. But I could live here. This is probably the most me of anywhere I've lived. This is relaxed.

"I don't like tight clothes. I've been that way since high school. I wear loose clothes and stay relaxed off of the field, and you can be somebody different on the field."

He does not do flashy, never has. He likens managing to, of all things, landscaping.

"When you first plant some stuff, it doesn't look like much," he says. "But you keep watering it, and the next year all the pieces fit."

So he will continue to water his Dodgers through the summer's heat, prune here, fertilize there, see if all of these pieces can't fit ... and who knows?

Mattingly played in 1,785 games without ever reaching a World Series. Torre played in 2,209 games, but never won a World Series ring until he became a manager.

Midday, time to drive to Dodger Stadium, and maybe that's one more path down which he can follow his old mentor.

"That would be fine," he says. "I think Los Angeles fans would like that. If we could throw three rings in a row together, that would be awesome."

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