LOS ANGELES – Sometime back when, when Dante Bichette was just finding his way in the big leagues, he arrived at first base at Yankee Stadium and nodded to the icon with the black smears across his cheekbones. Bichette was hot, living on his bat barrel, gathering line drives like he'd been around forever.
He'd just hit another, didn't matter the pitcher, the ballpark, nothing. It was one of those streaks when the pitch would arrive and suddenly it went hissing off into left field, or center, wherever, and Bichette was on his way to first again.
The first baseman nodded back.
"Hey," Don Mattingly said. "You a little more closed up there?"
He was talking about Bichette's stance, more specifically about his feet. Bichette actually hadn't given much thought to it lately. Closed, open, that didn't matter either. All he knew was how good he felt in the box.
"Nope," he told Mattingly.
He took his lead. And he thought, "Am I? No. Wait, am I? I don't think so … "
On the next pitch, Mattingly came off the bag, Bichette took off toward second, and the conversation was done.
Maybe 20 years later, Bichette grinned.
"I went cold for a week," he said.
Bichette still tells that story, how the brain could foul all those happy thoughts. Or, perhaps, how the brain could introduce thought into an otherwise vapid and tranquil process. And, of course, how Mattingly had started it all with one gentle and ruthless observation.
They stood last week on the second floor of a Nashville hotel. Mattingly, the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was leaning against a column, killing time during the winter meetings. Bichette, the new hitting coach for the Colorado Rockies, had ridden the elevator, seen Mattingly, and approached with a grin, a handshake and a story.
Mattingly offered a light chuckle. Maybe he was disappointed the slump lasted only a week. He said he'd often pick out an opposing hitter who looked a bit too comfortable, too confident, usually early in the series. When that guy showed up at first, Mattingly would be waiting.
"Hey, you standing a little taller up there?"
"Huh? No. Wait … "
On Tuesday afternoon, the Dodgers publicly introduced Zack Greinke. He sat on a small stage with Magic Johnson and Ned Colletti and shot smiles at his wife, Emily, who was in the front row. She took pictures with her cell phone.
Greinke is the latest piece – maybe the last piece – in what has become a juggernaut year for Guggenheim and its renewed ballclub. Since making Frank McCourt rich again last spring, Guggenheim and Mark Walter have taken on nearly $600 million in player contracts. Greinke came in at $147 million over six seasons. Just the day before, the Dodgers had feted Ryu Hyun-jin – and his $36 million (plus the $25.7 million posting fee) – in the same room, which overlooked in-progress renovations at Dodger Stadium. The payroll for 2013 will push $230 million, highest ever in the leagues.
"We're pretty much where we're going to be, budgetarily," Colletti said. "Unless … "
Yeah, unless something better comes along, something along the lines of an upgrade at third base, maybe in the bullpen, whatever.
And while I watched Greinke slip into his new white uniform – No. 21 – I thought about what the Dodgers might be now that searing championship expectations have replaced the haze left by the McCourt years. And I thought about their leader, the guy who grew up under the inflamed nostrils of George Steinbrenner, who'd enjoyed a marvelous career but never won. The New York Yankees hadn't started bludgeoning people with payroll until after Mattingly was retired, but he returned to the dugout as Joe Torre's hitting coach in 2004, eventually becoming his bench coach. When Torre was canned after the 2007 season for losing to the Cleveland Indians in the division series, Mattingly wasn't standing far away.
He didn't get that job. Joe Girardi did. Five years later Mattingly has his version of the Yankees, certainly as far as price tags go. With none of the recent pedigree, however, these Dodgers go into 2013 with three players under contract – Josh Beckett, Juan Uribe and Nick Punto – who have won a real championship. From all corners of the game, many of them since only July, the Dodgers will gather in spring with the talent to win a championship, but with perhaps little notion of how.
This will be their accomplishment, then. Or it will be Mattingly's failure. It's the way the game works. His contract runs to the end of 2013 and he said Tuesday there'd been no conversations about extending it. The organization has come a long way from just last season, when the opening day left fielder, first baseman and third baseman were Juan Rivera, James Loney and Juan Uribe. The year before, a scattered left-field platoon included Jay Gibbons and Marcus Thames. Mattingly was learning on the job, the Dodgers were so-so, and the feeling was that, if nothing else, the players were playing for Mattingly. Just, you know, not that well.
This will be different. Nearly everywhere, there are stars. Nearly nowhere is there championship baseball know-how. The L.A. rebuild began last summer and the San Francisco Giants, barely blinking, pulled away. The Miami Marlins, darlings of last winter, had long before collapsed into a smoldering pile of regret, and it wasn't that long before their manager – Ozzie Guillen – was fired.
The Dodgers – from Magic to Stan Kasten to Colletti – seem to adore Mattingly and the manager he's become, from the man with no managerial experience a couple years ago to the man they'll entrust with the most expensive team the game has ever seen. He is a former superstar who relates to the 25th man as well as he does the first, the leader few wish to disappoint.
The real gift on the top step is the leadership equivalent of the gentle and ruthless observation at first base. It's threading out the opponent's best pinch-hitter, his best reliever. It's being patient one moment, aggressive the next. It's understanding who fits where and when. And it's showing up every damn day as the same damn guy, and that perhaps is what Mattingly is best at.
He called Tuesday from Evansville, Ind., just a few minutes after rehearsals for a local production of "The Nutcracker." He'll play Mother Ginger, just as he did last winter. With one eye on the dancing children and another on the news of the offseason, he awaits spring training and an unrelenting season.
Sure, he said, the stakes are higher. The money spent is remarkable. The expectations are warranted. It's on him. It's on all of them.
"None of that really matters," he said. "The expectation is you have to win. That's just the way it is. You could fight it. You could try to defuse it. But I don't think there's any defusing this bomb, no matter what we do. We just might as well look at that and take it head on right away. We're supposed to win. There it is. If we lose, we're failures."
[Related: MLB free-agent tracker]Mattingly just finished Tony La Russa's new book, "One Last Strike." He considered that a man who managed for 33 years, who won more than 2,700 games and who presumably will go to the Hall of Fame, won three championships. That's a lot of work for three, glorious as they might have been.
"It's not easy," Mattingly said. "I don't care what kind of club you have. As far as me being ready, it doesn't even matter what I think. It comes down to, 'Am I capable of dealing with these guys?' That's the thing right there. And I always have been.
"Beyond that, at the end of the day, it's going to have to be a team that plays baseball. So, bring it on. Let's be a rock group, be rock stars. At the end of the day, can you perform? If you don't perform, you're going to get eaten up and spit out. In that clubhouse, we're going to have to know what we're after."
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