It hasn’t been an easy time for Don Mattingly, the Dodgers’ manager. A close adviser to Joe Torre when they were both with the Yankees, he was considered a lock to replace his mentor. Instead the Yankees passed him over, and “Donnie Baseball” joined Torre in L.A. as his hitting coach and trusted friend. This season, Mattingly’s first as manager, has been a worst-case scenario. Following in Torre’s giant footsteps would be tough under any circumstances, but Mattingly has had to spend most of 2011 trying to keep his eye on the ball despite the team’s many problems off the field, from the brutal beating of a San Francisco Giants fan in the parking lot to the financial plight of its failed ownership. Then there’s the team itself, which has struggled for consistency. Mattingly, who is 50, has responded with the same steady professionalism he exemplified as a longtime Yankees first baseman and Hall of Fame-caliber hitter. Here’s what he has to say about the McCourt situation, the ups and downs of this season, and the influence of Torre on his perpetual optimism.
This season has been a roller-coaster ride. What are your impressions?
I’ve loved it, but I’m not at all happy with the results. It has been a blessing for me to get the chance to manage after not getting the opportunity with the New York Yankees. But it’s a big challenge, and one that I am enjoying, to lead this club back to winning games.
Joe Torre was a legend known for his outsize personality. You have a quieter style. How difficult has it been to follow in his footsteps?
The transition has been easy because of all the things I learned from Joe as his hitting coach with the Yankees and Dodgers. He was one of the great managers—a master of strategy and managing personalities and dealing well with challenges. You have to be true to yourself and make your own decisions. We do have different styles, but you’d better learn something when you get a chance to work with a guy like Joe. I learned to be patient and gained insight into dealing with conflict in a focused, relaxed way.
What kind of input have you gotten from him since you took over?
We talk all the time, and he is always positive and helpful. If we lose a couple of games in a row, he’ll call to ask me how I’m doing and to make sure I don’t get upset about anything on or off the field.
He always said you’d make a great manager.
Even before I coached for Joe he told me I had potential to be a good manager someday. George Steinbrenner also told me I was a born leader and that I could be a great manager. When legends like Torre and Steinbrenner say you’d be a good manager, it does get you thinking.
Between the highly public divorce of team owners Frank and Jamie McCourt and the assault on the Giants fan, Bryan Stow, the team has had a lot to contend with off the field.
Of course, the divorce and the assault in the parking lot have been major concerns for people working for the team. My job has been to get the players to focus on the culture of baseball. No matter what is going on around the team, the guys still have to play hard and do all the little things it takes to win.
But the ownership situation must have been a distraction.
It can be a distraction at times, but not to the extent it has an impact on what’s going on during the game. I can’t let it become such a distraction, or we won’t make progress as a team. I can’t control what happens with ownership. [Dodger GM] Ned Colletti has to deal with it a lot more than I do, and I have to deal with what’s going on with McCourt more than my coaches or the players.
So you’re saying it hasn’t had a negative impact on the players?
Distractions are a constant in baseball. The fans in San Francisco are rowdy and try to get the players’ attention. The weather can be miserably cold or very hot. You always have personal issues that could, if you allow them to, get in the way of doing your job. But you have to separate all this stuff from baseball. I ask my players to separate all those things, including the ownership issue, for three to four hours every day. This is the time to get away from all the negatives and just enjoy the experience of letting it fly and playing hard.
What’s it like working with McCourt?
He has always treated me fairly, and he has never told me who to play or what to do. I respect him and like him, and I know he is going through a very difficult time.
Having been through a difficult divorce, you must have some empathy for what he’s going through.
I had a very tough time dealing with my divorce, but I can’t even imagine what it’s like to have a divorce played out in public. He’s a decent person, and a tough divorce like this one with its financial issues would make it even tougher.
McCourt hasn’t been at Dodger Stadium in months, though. Isn’t that a concern?
I really have no idea why he’s not coming to games, but it could be that this is his way of not becoming a distraction for our club, and he wants us to stay focused.
Attendance is way down. Do you think it is a reflection of the team’s record?
If we can win enough games to be in a race to win the division, and then win the National League pennant, the fans will come out and the attendance will get back to where it should be. The team has struggled with consistency, and that does not help draw people to games, but the answer is probably more involved than just wins and losses.
Juan Uribe, Rafael Furcal, Rod Barajas—the team has definitely had to deal with a lot of injuries this year.
We have had our share of injuries, but that’s part of baseball. I don’t want to make any excuses. We have had a lot of chances to win games, our pitching and defense have been good, but we just haven’t scored enough runs. If you go through and analyze every Dodger game this year, you won’t find a lot of blowouts, but we are not winning those close games. It comes down to a key pitch or a hit, and we’re not getting it done with enough consistency.
Who are the guys you expect to form the nucleus of the team next season?
Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier are the three core guys we are going to build this team around. But we have other players who don’t have big numbers but have what it takes to be an important part of our future success: Jamey Carroll, Aaron Miles, and Casey Blake are stand-up guys who have had to work hard to become successful. I like players who are willing to pay the price for success.
Ethier reminds me of you as a hitter—he has that classic, smooth left-handed swing. Did you work with him a lot on his swing?
I worked with all the guys when I was a hitting coach under Torre. You get a chance to see how they handle pitchers and different pitches in different situations, and they also had a chance to get to know me as a person. The players learned that I am not the type of guy who is going to panic when they are slumping at the plate. They know I am consistent and fair in how I treat them, both in good times and bad, and that’s helped with all the challenges we’ve had this year.
Managers have people second-guessing them all the time. But even you’ve second-guessed some of your decisions in the press.
If you don’t second-guess yourself, then you are not trying to get better. Joe would always tell me that you are going to make decisions. Some of them are not going to work out, and it does not mean that they were the wrong decisions. I have had many occasions this year where I questioned and second-guessed my decision in a game, but it comes down to learning from mistakes and being accountable for what you did right or did wrong.
Can you think of a decision you second-guessed recently?
The Mets had Jason Bay waiting on deck with an open base, and I could have walked the lefty hitter and pitched to Bay. Instead the lefty got a hit, and I kicked myself for not challenging Bay and walking the other guy with an open base. We all have the temptation to be backseat drivers when it comes to decisions that don’t work out the way we want.
What’s been your season highlight?
With all of our struggles, I am proud that this team continues to play hard and work hard to improve every day. As a manager I have been given an opportunity to develop a culture of playing the game the right way. I told the team when I took this job my goal was to win a championship, and every decision I make is designed to move us in that direction. We have to play the game the right way, regardless of whether we are up ten games in the NL West or ten games out of first place.
What’s your favorite thing about Dodger Stadium?
As you drive into the stadium you look at the mountains and palm trees and the beautiful setting. Then once you are inside you have that positive vibe and good feeling from the loyal Dodger fans. With everything that has happened this year, the fans at Dodger Stadium are still really excited about our club, and that means a lot to me.
Have the Dodger fans given you guys a hard time when the team has struggled?
Any fans will be disgruntled when the team is not doing well. We hear the chorus of boos and the catcalls if we screw up. The fans are laid-back, but that does not mean they don’t give us a hard time if we’re losing. I can’t say I blame them.
How would you say Dodger fans are different from Yankee fans?
They are very much the same, as you have two franchises with all this rich history. Yankee fans are always talking about Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Dodger fans talk about Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Jackie Robinson, Davey Lopes, Ron Cey, and Steve Garvey. But the L.A. Dodger fan is obviously much more laid-back than his counterpart in the Bronx. It is a very different scene, and that leads to a little less intensity in the crowd in L.A. But we have Dodger fans in every city on the road, and that’s the one thing that reminds me the most of what it was like with the Yankees.
Photograph by Tom Schierlitz