The Los Angeles Dodgers – in this case ownership, president Stan Kasten, general manager Ned Colletti – do not want to fire Don Mattingly. They want the players – start with Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, but there's a fair-sized list here – to play better. To hit. To pitch. To give a crap.
And so they wait. But not for much longer, not if a 18-25 record is any indication of what's to come for the rest of spring and then summer.
While management waits, it hears players say they respect their manager, the iconic Mattingly. It hears Kemp, for one, call him by the familiar, "Donnie B.," the "B" short for baseball. It understands the players like Mattingly.
Dodgers leaders wonder why, then, they won't win for him, too.
They wonder why the players don't spend more time with hitting coach Mark McGwire, why they don't play as hard as their opponents, why they continue to lose games in the little gray areas where good teams thrive. That is, why they don't catch the ball as well as others, why they don't toughen and produce with runners in scoring position, why they don't finish hitters from the mound. These are supposed to be good players, right?
Is it Mattingly? Has this group of players gone soft under Mattingly, whose leadership method allows men to be men, and perhaps thins when the men refuse to live to that minimum standard?
For long enough, the Dodgers could be excused for their mediocrity. They were injured. Kemp himself was pushing a shoulder that was repaired in the offseason. Their shortstop – Hanley Ramirez – has played in four games. Their No. 3 starter – Chad Billingsley – made two starts, and won't make another. Their No. 2 – Zack Greinke – has made three.
So, they cling to Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, they cling to Clayton Kershaw, and they get swept in Atlanta, and they near June in last place, and still they get so little from Kemp and Ethier, particularly with men on base, when the job gets hard.
Yes, the bullpen has been a mess lately. Yes, this here's a team sport, and the Dodgers don't look like a team that's all that desperate to win. Still, Kemp and Ethier were a combined 15 for 81 with runners in scoring position going into the Milwaukee series, and just one of those 15 hits was for extra bases.
Meanwhile, Mattingly stands on the top step knowing full well his future relies on all of the Dodgers – not just Kemp and Ethier, but that alone would help – becoming better. And soon. Mediocrity won't play anymore. Hell, mediocrity would be an upgrade, and still wouldn't save Mattingly. One day soon he could be cleaning out his desk for Tim Wallach or Davey Lopes or some other guy and walking away in street clothes, and it'll be because he expected his players to perform.
Every fall we check the standings and decide who the smart managers are. Last year, it was the impenetrable Bruce Bochy, the sandpaper-y Jim Leyland, the stoic Mike Matheny, the pliable Bob Melvin. Some years, it's law-and-order guys. Other years, let-the-inmates-run guys. Usually, of course, it's about the amount of talent in the clubhouse, about the level of accountability in the clubhouse, and not about the man posting the lineup in the clubhouse.
Two seasons and seven weeks in, Mattingly is a players' manager, and that should have worked. It still could. He's six games over .500 after Monday's victory. He's carrying a big payroll. He invited the intrusions of expectations and scrutiny.
He's man enough to handle that, of course. No matter how it ends.
The question is, are his players? They haven't been so far.
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