LOS ANGELES – "You gotta have some vision," Don Mattingly was saying Friday afternoon, like you can see it or you can't, like you want to see it or you don't.
These are the Los Angeles Dodgers – humbly, hopelessly and telescopically yours. Once the class of baseball, today they require a compassionate eye, blind devotion and a few buckets of optimism to appear even salvageable.
Not to mention vision. You need vision, too.
That's where Don Mattingly comes in. The royal Yankee. The Torre apprentice. The rookie manager.
The Dodgers play almost nightly to keep themselves from last place in the National League West, and that's not the worst of it.
Their owner, their owner's ex and the almost karmic demolition of their roster have turned the franchise into the worst kind of joke – retold each dusk, warmed over each morning, substituting "The Dodgers!" for "The Aristocrats!"
Across the game, the question comes from former teammates with creased foreheads: "How's Donnie doing?"
Alongside batting cages, the sympathy comes from old friends with sighs: "Poor Donnie."
Six months in, it still seems odd to find Mattingly behind a desk. He's 50 now, remarried, living in Hermosa Beach, taking cleansing dashes into the cold Pacific, running a ballclub. Going on 16 years since his last at-bat, the line drive to center field which left his career batting average at .307, you're sure he has another three or four hundred hits in him. More, maybe. He reeks of baseball, the way Dodger Stadium used to before all this, before the humiliation piled up and the people stopped coming and the memories turned bitter.
Poor Donnie, they say.
"Well," he says, "I don't like that at all. I'm doing what I love to do. I love this job."
He's a first-timer, and first-timers most often get what they get. Across the field Friday night, Brad Mills(notes) got the Houston Astros. Mattingly's bench coach, Trey Hillman, once got the Kansas City Royals. Jobs like that can be career derailers – at worst, career killers.
Mattingly was one of the fortunate. He got the Dodgers, who were too big to fail. And then they did, spectacularly, leaving Mattingly on the top step, with a thin and flawed roster, with a greater chance for more of the same than salvation, with a bankrupt owner overhead and a brittle foundation underfoot.
"I know we're down," Mattingly says. "I look at that as an opportunity. I think about how great it's going to be when we get this thing turned."
He doesn't even blink.
"This game," he says, "is about toughness."
So it is.
It's about believing when your constituency is just large enough to fill a baseball clubhouse. And it's about leading from there, when the disabled list bloats and the division has run off and the hope is gone.
Donnie Baseball, by his own admission, has a few things to learn about running a ballgame. Those three hours, particularly in the National League, tend to run fast. The bullpen is a fickle beast. There have been missteps. At a time when offenses are down anyway, the Dodgers get average or better production from just two of eight positions. The projected starting infield played two games. From the pitchers who would lock down the final third of the game, they've received 35 1/3 innings. The winter passed without a major acquisition, the deadline passed as sellers, and the people of Los Angeles have called it the worst Dodger season ever.
Which is to say, thank heavens for the man standing out in front of it.
Mattingly has been the perfect manager for the Dodgers – not for what he has accomplished but for what he has prevented. For all the turmoil above, for the apathy that surrounds them, the Dodgers have not griped; they have not brooded; they have not quit. They have played hard for Mattingly, the simple man who believes in a simple game about preparation and brains and effort.
"He's kept it together," one Dodger said.
Now, a few years ago, over dinner with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Mattingly got a lesson in "X." Belichick told him that he, too, adored the guts-and-glory player, the overachiever who won the hearts and minds of coaches and fans. But a cornerback, say, has to run "X" to play in the NFL, Belichick told him. Has to. Otherwise, the ball and receiver are gone, and so is the game, and then so is the coach's job. Effort ain't always enough.
So, while Mattingly says "I want the guy who's not afraid," he understands there's more.
"I know you gotta have 'X'," he said.
The Dodgers are short an "X" … or five.
That's not on Mattingly. What is on Mattingly is getting these Dodgers as close to a collective "X" as possible. For their frailties, they are 17-15 in one-run games and 6-0 in extra-inning games. For the usual ballplayer insecurities, they have not yet spun away from the concepts of team and fight.
They've lost a lot. And yet Mattingly does not throw fits. He scolds less than Torre ever did. He lets the game do the talking, and a player's conscience do the screaming.
"I don't know how much good it would do to yell and scream at guys who are playing as hard as they can," he says.
While that may be sad for the state of the Dodgers, Mattingly has just these 25, another game tonight, and a vision for something better.
"I think there's more," he says.
So, how's Donnie doing?
He's hanging in there. He's doing fine. He's going to be good at this.
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