LOS ANGELES – This town wouldn’t make room in its heart for Don Mattingly. He had for the better part of five years, for more than 800 games, made do with a choppy bullpen and a combustible clubhouse and, in his final season, a rotation that ran only two deep. He won three division titles. It wasn’t enough, and maybe it shouldn’t have been, because this town had seen plenty of decent regular seasons for a quarter-century and what had those gotten it?
Well, for most of Mattingly’s tenure, long Octobers watching the San Francisco Giants win. Didn’t help.
That “Donnie Baseball” stuff was for other people. Those 2,153 hits, that batting title, that MVP award, those Gold Gloves, that way he got after the game, none of it was for this town. None of it was in this ballpark, wearing these colors.
Maybe that was it. Maybe this town needed someone to blame, and ownership had turned over too often to keep track, and the front office was all too new. And so it became about lineups, covering the seventh inning and pitching Kershaw too long or not long enough, and it was never about keeping the clubhouse together long enough to win 94 games.
Nobody saw that. If they did, they didn’t much value it, because the freakin’ bullpen just blew up again. Or the Cardinals were a little better again. Or there was nobody left to pitch after Kershaw and Greinke.
So, given an opening and a waiting four-year contract, Mattingly ditched the richest franchise in the game and a shot to win every summer for the least predictable job in the sport. A friend of Mattingly’s told me this winter that he — Mattingly — accepted that job not for the money but because he wanted to have fun again, and I wondered aloud how Mattingly could believe he would be the first to enjoy managing Jeffrey Loria’s baseball team. The reply was silence.
Mattingly returned to Dodger Stadium on Monday night. His Marlins arrived with a record of 6-11. Giancarlo Stanton wasn’t hitting much (he did homer Sunday and again Monday night), so they weren’t scoring runs. Their starters’ ERA was better than only Colorado’s and Milwaukee’s. They were 7 ½ games out of first place in the NL East and it was April 25, which is either good news or not. The Dodgers were in first place.
“He’s just been steady as always,” said Dee Gordon, who played under Mattingly for four seasons in L.A.
Does he seem less stressed?
“He gets to be himself,” Gordon said. “He gets to make his own decisions. Good, bad or indifferent, it was his decision.”
That’s something Mattingly has never said publicly and would not again Monday. When he packed for Miami with still a year left on his Dodgers contract he would only say it was time to go and the decision was best for everyone, and he repeated it Monday.
“Hello, hello,” Mattingly said as he threaded through a couple dozen reporters.
The cameras were here because it should be important and it should be interesting, but this town had long ago moved on, had maybe moved on before he did. The issues of yesterday wouldn’t register much. Neither would his return, which was a shame, because Don Mattingly is a smart, solid man whose good here far outweighed the occasional wobble on the top step. They all wobble, you know. Smart stuff fails sometimes. Dumb luck wins sometimes. And then you have to find someone to pitch the eighth.
“A lot of good things happened over there,” he said, nodding to the third-base dugout. “And then you move forward through life and I love the challenge of what we’re trying to do here right now.”
They’re trying to build something a bit more sustainable in Miami. Meantime, maybe a winning season. Given time and patience from ownership — not evident in the recent history of Marlins’ managers — it’s possible. The Marlins would seem to be competent enough on the baseball end, and you could do worse than to start with Stanton, Gordon, Christian Yelich, Jose Fernandez and Jarred Cosart. We’ll see. There’s a lot of games out there.
Anyway, this is what Mattingly has in front of him now. Perhaps this job will be a truer reflection of him — as a manager — than the last. Perhaps, as Gordon suggested, more of the decisions will be his to make and live with, and he will improve upon 94 wins or 92 wins and then regular October baseball. The job isn’t easy. It’s harder in Miami.
“The allure was the teaching,” he said. “It was the youth, the changing of this culture.”
In order to do that job, he believed he would have to leave the one he had. So he sat in the other dugout Monday night and said he remained happy with the decision, maybe as happy as this town was that he made it. It’s how the job works. So few get out for free, even the good ones. No sense sitting there in a different uniform wishing it were any different.
“I would like to have won,” he said.
Just that, and maybe that wouldn’t have been enough either.