Don Mattingly and the Dodgers are in last place in the NL West. (Reuters)
LOS ANGELES – Don Mattingly is not one of theirs. He's just a guy with sloped shoulders, a Yankee pedigree, a letter of recommendation from Joe Torre and a résumé a little light on top-step wherewithal.
So the folks of Los Angeles, fine with Mattingly when the stakes were low – or non-existent – have their doubts today. Their Dodgers are in last place, which wasn't at all what Magic Johnson promised them. The billboards talk about a Whole New Blue, apparently just a fresh way to be glum about the local baseball team.
Mattingly could stay or go, far as anyone was concerned here, or so it seemed. Which is why, when the Dodgers didn't win, Mattingly became the target. He continues to be. The alternative is to wonder what happened to Matt Kemp, and folks aren't quite ready to go there yet.
Even as team management says it will support Mattingly up to a point, news stories say different, and now Mattingly not only must win, but he must win in the worst of climates. That is, with the winds whipping rumors of how close he is to the door, and with a clubhouse filled with thoughts of its manager getting canned, and with the edginess that comes with having played themselves into last place, and with the first-place St. Louis Cardinals, suddenly capable Los Angeles Angels, dangerous Colorado Rockies and more issues on the schedule ahead.
Mattingly and his Dodgers returned from the road Friday night for the first of three games against the Cardinals, this coming two days after Mattingly benched right fielder Andre Ethier and – coincidentally or not – then went on a good hard jag about playing the game (and building a roster) the proper way.
After taking a breath Thursday, which he spent at the beach with his wife, Mattingly strode into one of the more important series of his young managerial career without apology. He stood ardently behind what he said, what he believes and how he'll do this job for as long as they let him do it. Team president Stan Kasten, asked if Mattingly's job was in jeopardy, said, "No."
And that was pretty much that. Except, of course, it's not. Because the Dodgers are 19-26, have been at least that bad, and, as noted, the coming schedule won't be doing them any favors. The Dodgers could play better, and Mattingly could lead better, and they still could lose plenty of games.
"I always avoid doing what you all would mock me for, and that is issuing the dreaded vote of confidence," Kasten continued. "I do expect this to turn around. And because of that I expect Donnie to be around a long time."
That's really going to depend on the Dodgers scoring more runs, however, and pitching better. And, OK, becoming more defensively taut. Maybe running the bases smarter. Mattingly's point regarding these frailties is that the club needs to attack the game, and that meant everyone, not just Ethier, who apparently was in the wrong place at the wrong time Wednesday in Milwaukee. By Friday afternoon, Mattingly spoke through a jaw rigid with conviction, kind of like he did as a player when he was captaining the Yankees.
The fact is, neither Kasten nor general manager Ned Colletti took issue with what Mattingly said – basically, that he'd take hardened gamers over soft All-Stars – or how he said it. And if Mattingly is going to look at the standings and at how the Dodgers occasionally have coasted through those 45 games, and then takes a harder leadership approach, they're good with that, too.
Maybe by the end – however the end comes – this will look like Mattingly was trying to save himself. His job. What's really happening is this: He is trying to save his players. From themselves. From regret. From casually kicking a season away because, you know, the Dodgers were supposed to be good, and it's a long season, and there's so much talent that a championship must follow.
Except championships don't come that way, and few know that better than Mattingly, who played in just one playoff series in 14 years with the Yankees. If he's going to have to get mad, if that's what it's going to take, and somebody is humiliated by the words and decisions that follow, then he'll live with that.
Ethier has for the moment become the face of Mattingly's impatience. But he certainly is not the beginning and end of what's happened to the Dodgers over two months. One man doesn't drag a team into last place, just as one man – not Mattingly, not anyone – will drag them out of it. Mattingly simply is the guy standing out in front, wearing the mess that follows. He is, however, the one who could lose his job forever because of it.
"It hasn't been that bad, honestly," he said of the storm blowing through. "I have a pretty good understanding with what goes on in this situation.
"I've been saying it the whole time – if your team doesn't play well somebody's going to go. … The only thing I really stress over is how our club's playing."
That means wins, of course. But it's more about the how. Does it play smart? Does it play hard? Does it play unselfishly? Are the players accountable to the daily trials of the season?
If Mattingly were to go, after all, those questions would still have to be answered.
"Guys who play the game right," Mattingly said, "they have no problem with what I said the other day."
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