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The Cool Fire of Don Mattingly PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry Contributing Writer   
Thursday, 14 June 2012 02:25

The Dodgers' Manager Radiates Serenity And Calm, But His Passion And Quiet Resolve Has Led The Team Atop The NL West

JUAN OCAMPO/LA DODGERS

A Good Signing -- Dodgers manager Don Mattingly has revitalized the team missed the playoffs the past two seasons. The Dodgers currently have baseball's best record.

The first time I met Don Mattingly was in 1989 when I was covering the Angels for another newspaper. Mattingly was an established star, the best player on the New York Yankees, and one of the best players in baseball. He was admired and respected for a sweet, precise swing that produced six consecutive .300 seasons, and a first baseman's glove that doubled as a vacuum, inhaling everything hit or thrown his way.

Even though he didn't know me, Mattingly had agreed to sit down for an interview before a game in Yankee Stadium. He gave a fledging writer plenty of time, espousing on a variety of subjects. The answers were thoughtful, if not always long. He was refreshingly free of ego.

Twenty-three years later, some things have changed; some have not. There is a touch of gray at the temples. The body is not as rock-hard as it was then, betrayed by a slight paunch in the midsection, but the forearms are still thick and the legs are still solid. The smile is still easy. He is still free of ego. The answers are thoughtful – and longer. And the memory is sharp. When we saw each other for the first time in 23 years back in April, at the end of spring training, Mattingly came up and warmly greeted me by name. I was stunned he remembered.

Mattingly is now manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the 27th manager in franchise history, and the ninth since the Dodgers came to Los Angeles in 1958. He took over for Joe Torre – who he had served as a hitting coach here since 2008, and with the Yankees from 2004-07 -- toward the end of the 2010 season. Despite no previous major league managerial experience, Mattingly has been guiding the Dodgers back to the upper echelon of National League West after fourth and third place finishes in 2010 and 2011.

JILL WEISLEDER/LA DODGERS

Doesn't Miss A Thing -- Mattingly keeps a close eye on things even when wearing sun glasses.

Today was the first of three inter-league games with the Angels. The day of a first game is a busy one; besides batting and fielding practice, coaches and players have meetings to pour over scouting reports and review video of the opponent. I didn't expect Mattingly to have time to talk, but he escorts me into his office, asks how much time I need, and settles back into a chair.

While learning on the job, Mattingly is proving to be a player's manager. He doesn't work through screaming or intimidation. He evenly delegates the workload on his coaching staff. He expects the players to perform and produce, but he doesn't berate or embarrass them when they fail.

"I think I brought that 'grind'; that getting ready to play every day, and having an understanding of the length of the season, and how hard this game is to play," Mattingly said. "Don't get caught up in, once you're done playing, that 'he should do this, how can he not make that play or not get a hit there.' You can't do that. As long as the guys are giving you the effort, then you have to be willing to take what they give you, or what the results are.

"I've never lost track of how hard this game is to play and I made a promise to these guys that I'd never forget how hard the game is. As long as they're working and giving me their best effort, we're gonna be good."

Two words best describe Mattingly – even keel. When you ask people about him, the phrase pops up consistently.

"He doesn't go up or down; his emotions don't swing high and low, they stay the same, which is very difficult to do at this level because of all the responsibilities that you do have – getting attacked by the media if your team is not doing well collectively," said Davey Lopes, the team's first base coach who also managed in Milwaukee for three seasons.

"He puts his trust in his coaches, and I believe every successful manager – for them to be successful – they have to trust their coaches. It's a good group that we have here. He does an excellent job coordinating everything. His communication skills are probably the key thing for him. I see how the players gravitate toward him. I've never heard him raise his voice in a year-and-a-half here.

"The only time I do hear him raise his voice is when he goes and talks to umpires," Lopes adds, with a laugh.

That coolness comes in part from his watching his father – "he was always calm man," Mattingly said – and watching how other managers, like Torre, ran their teams.

"When you hear or see something, and your coach reacts – even in the heat of the moment, even if our team's on the field – then (the players) talk," Mattingly said. "So for me, if I'm gonna sit there and react [to everything], they're gonna talk.

"I don't want to react. I want to be calm from the standpoint that, if stuff happens on the field, sometimes you react but you don't think. I want to stay calm so I think right and make good decisions."

Beneath a calm exterior, though, is a fire. Just because Mattingly won't outwardly show emotion, don't think it isn't there.

"I do get angry," he said. "You have to have a fire burning. Different guys show it different ways. I remember Joe Torre; they'd say 'Joe never gets mad, he never gets upset, it's like a country club over there.' Not the case. You'd see in those eyes; once in a while they'd burn. It depends how you show it.

"As a player you're able to let it out, let that fire burn. You have to have a little (expletive) in you. You'd better to play this game. You'd better be willing to take some guys on. Every night you're gonna take on a (Tim) Lincecum, the next day it's a (Johan) Santana…so you better have some dirt inside that makes you say 'I can play and I'm getting ready to play tonight.'"

His time in New York, from 1982-95, always comes up in conversation. Folks wonder how the gentlemanly Mattingly, who grew up in Evansville, Ind., could endure bellicose owner George Steinbrenner and a relentless media, a combination that, at the time, drove other players from there to other, saner, pastures.

"New York was easy for me, and I'll tell you why," Mattingly said. "I came from a small town; not tiny, maybe small by standards of other cities, but a decentsized city for Indiana. But I was always good at breaking it down to its simplest form. And that was the baseball field for me. I always kept a perspective.

"Its just baseball; its baseball in New York, its baseball in Cleveland, its baseball here. I've always kept it to its simplest form. The game doesn't change. And, coming from a small town, New York was great because I didn't need a lot of attention. I was pretty quiet. You can get plenty of attention there without having to look for it. If you do well, you get plenty of attention. That's the best thing about big cities. You don't have to be silly or do anything crazy. Go out and put up numbers, you're gonna get plenty of attention. And that's all I tried to do."

Through all the turmoil the Dodgers went through off the field with former owner Frank McCourt, Mattingly never let it interfere with what happened on the field. Although the Dodgers spent more than half of the 2011 season below .500, Mattingly helped them rally to an 82-79 overall record. This season the Dodgers have been the best team record wise; they began the week at 39-22, while navigating several key injuries, among them outfielder Matt Kemp, infielder Justin Sellers, and pitchers Ted Lilly and Javey Guerra.

He has gained a measure of respect from others.

"You don't have your finger on the pulse of (their) team because you don't see them that often, day-to-day," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "But just from the outside looking in – noting the injuries they've had, and scouting them the way the roster's been used – they're playing at a high level. And, obviously, Donnie and his staff are doing a great job because they've plugged some big holes with some guys, like (Elian) Herrera and (Jerry) Hairston, who have gotten an opportunity and are stepping up, playing very well. That has a lot to do with the evaluations they make."

If Mattingly is bemused by those still questioning how the Dodgers are doing it, he doesn't let on.

"I can understand it," he said. "We're kind of the same group (from last year). I felt like, even though these guys didn't get any attention or credit last year, these guys played the game right all year. (In the first half) we just couldn't get that extra run, weren't getting wins, so we weren't getting the credit or attention. But I was pleased with the effort I was getting, and it was satisfying to put some wins together and get above .500 at the end. The guys stayed the course, kept working, kept getting ready to play, and we turned a corner.

"So we go into spring training this year, and people want to know if there is momentum from last year. And I think there is from the standpoint of we had some success, and we had built a foundation on the way we believed we should play the game – or at least the way I felt we should play the game. In spring training the attitude was great again, they knew what it felt like at the end of last year. But I don't think that momentum comes with us if we don't start out well."

Of course no one will remember what happened in April, May or June if the Dodgers aren't battling for a pennant in September. One reason a 162-game season is difficult to project is because it's a 162-game season.

The Dodgers are not yet halfway through the journey. There are probably more injuries, a few slumps and, well, just the unexpected to contend with.

Whatever is on the horizon, Mattingly will take it on – with a cool fire.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 14 June 2012 02:30