With Mattingly not returning to Marlins, Miguel Rojas reflects on his ‘father in baseball’

David Santiago/dsantiago@miamiherald.com

Miguel Rojas, in many ways, has served as an extension of Don Mattingly on the field over the past seven seasons. The Miami Marlins’ shortstop and de facto team captain had known the manager the longest, with their connection predating their time in South Florida and extending through all seven of Mattingly’s tenure with the Marlins.

Mattingly was there for Rojas’ first opportunity in the big leagues, coming up as a 25-year-old to serve as a defensive replacement for a stacked Dodgers team in 2014. The relationship continued when Mattingly was hired as the Marlins’ manager ahead of the 2016 season. Rojas was already in Miami for a season at that point, being traded from Los Angeles to Miami ahead of the 2015 season.

For seven seasons, Rojas and Mattingly were the two constants of an organization that has seen an upheaval of turnover and more disappointment and rough times than success.

And that made Sunday that much harder for Rojas when the club and Mattingly mutually announced Mattingly’s tenure as Marlins manager is over at the end of the 2022 season. Mattingly’s contract expires at the end of the season and a contract renewal is not being sought.

Don Mattingly’s tenure as Miami Marlins manager ends after this season

“For me,” Rojas said postgame Sunday, “he’s like a father on the field and a father in baseball for me. I’m definitely going to miss him, but in regards to not just me but the whole organization and all the players who have played for Donnie, I have to say thank you to Donnie. Other than being a good manager and a really good communicator and really good leader, he’s had our backs. He’s a guy who always when he talked to media, when he talked to fans, when he talked to his family, he always backed up his players. He always talked to us about how he’s going to have our back when we worked hard and when we were playing the game the right way. He taught me how to be a professional, How to be accountable for my actions.”

Mattingly told players about the decision prior to their game on Sunday, a 6-1 loss to the Washington Nationals. Rojas said it was tough to process the news in such a short amount of time before going to the field to play a game and said it will probably hit him and the rest of the team a little harder when the season ends. Mattingly is managing the final nine games of the season — two games against the New York Mets at Citi Field starting Tuesday, a four-game set with the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field starting Thursday and three home games against the Atlanta Braves from Oct. 3-5 to wrap up the season.

Rojas said Mattingly’s message to the group was simple.

“It’s time for a change,” said Rojas, who signed a two-year contract extension last offseason that runs through the 2023 season. “It’s time for a new voice. Him and the organization decided that this is the right time to do it and he’s going to step down as manager, but I’m sure that he’s going to continue to look out for this organization, for the players that he coached all this time [to succeed].”

Marlins GM Kim Ng talks decision to move on from Mattingly, plans moving forward

Mattingly and Rojas were both steadfast in that approach, even through the toughest times.

Rojas is the last remaining player from the Marlins’ roster from the 2016 season, one that saw the club hover around playoff contention but at the end of the season dealt with Jose Fernandez’s tragic death — Sunday was the six-year anniversary of when Fernandez’s boat crashed into jetty rocks at Government Cut with two friends on board.

And then there was the rebuild that began before the 2018 season following the Bruce Sherman ownership group buying the team. Miami lost 203 games over the ensuing two seasons, including a 105-loss 2019 season.

But both Mattingly and Rojas remained committed to the cause as that 2019 season unfolded. Both were given contract extensions.

The team rallied through a COVID-19 outbreak at the start of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season to reach the playoffs for the third time in franchise history, a moment the team hoped would be a turning point in the rebuild.

Instead? Miami lost 95 games in 2021 and has lost 90 games this season with nine games left on the schedule.

“The organization has a little bit of a ways to go to be where we want to be,” Rojas said.

So what needs to improve? Rojas points to two factors.

“For me, to be honest with you, it’s the guys in the clubhouse producing the way that we are supposed to produce,” Rojas said. “There were a lot of down years this year. ... That’s going to be a big part and big piece of this organization taking a leap forward. The other is, what is the commitment that the organization is going to make to make this team better? How it’s going to be? We don’t know. Maybe getting big pieces in the free agent market or trading and continuing to develop players, but I think the kind of trend is we have a lot of guys here at the big-league level. We hope for them to actually take this as an experience for next year to come prepared and help this team and this organization move forward.”

And as for Rojas’ perspective on the qualities of the Marlins’ next manager?

“For me, the guy who’s going to be in charge, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be baseball people with a lot of experience — not just in baseball, but with the young generation, too,” Rojas said. “We have a lot of young players in this game, and the analytics department and all the changes that are coming next year. So I’m pretty sure that Kim, Bruce and the people from the organization are going to do a great job bringing someone in.”