- Mark Saxon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- When did Don Mattingly get so much smarter?
On May 22, there were national baseball writers either calling for the Los Angeles Dodgers manager to be fired or predicting his imminent downfall. The Dodgers scrambled to squash those rumors, but a month later, the Dodgers’ season had settled into a more humdrum rut, and it seemed like Mattingly might make it until the final game of the season, but not much beyond that.
And now? Mattingly’s club is as hot as it has ever been in the 55 years the Dodgers have been in Los Angeles and, funny, nobody is raising the issue of his job security. If anything, his name is now being bandied about in early discussions for Manager of the Year.
With the New York Yankees coming to Dodger Stadium for interleague play for the third time ever, it seemed like a good time to catch up with Mattingly. He was a six-time All-Star for the Yankees between 1982 and 1995.
Q. When you guys were in New York earlier this year (the Dodgers’ first trip there in 32 years), the Yankees played a tribute to you on the video board, and you got a standing ovation. How did that feel?
A. It was nice. I’m downplaying it, but it was nice.
I always like going back there. It’s hard to explain that. I played my whole career there, you know, and they were always good to me. The fans appreciated the way I played. It’s where I grew up. I learned how you were supposed to play the game from their perspective. It’s like, you play your whole career there, so …
Q. You coached Derek Jeter, who came back Sunday (and homered on the first pitch he saw). What do you expect from him the rest of his career?
A. I’m not sure. I don’t know how serious everything is. Obviously, Father Time’s going to get you at some point, but one thing I’ve seen with Derek is you don’t ever underestimate him because he finds a way to get it done. Two years ago, they were saying he can’t do this and he can’t do that, and he gets 200 hits and had a tremendous year. It’s hard to sell him short.
He’ll play the same. Jete plays hard, but he’s under control. He’s not doing dumb stuff. He steals bags when you need them. That’s kind of the way he plays. When he wants an out, he’s going to go make a play, even if he has to go in the stands.
Q. Earlier this year, you said you were prepared for all the rumors about your job because of your experience playing under George Steinbrenner during that time of volatility at Yankee Stadium. When you went through it, though, was it any different than you’d expected?
A. It’s a little different, because you can’t really do a whole lot about it. I’ve been through a lot, obviously, just as a player. It was a good situation, but still you go through stuff. You struggle in your career, they get on you. It’s just the way it is.
You’re prepared for that. You just know how to deal with stuff, but as a manager, you don’t really have any control. So, you’ve just got to keep making good decisions, that’s the main thing. You can’t start listening to outside influences. I don’t want them in my head. I don’t want to see Twitter, I don’t want to see comments. I want to go off facts to make baseball decisions, not based on what’s trending or what talk radio is saying about what you should be doing. You want to just keep making good decisions and then trust your guys. But it was hard, though.
Q. When you read that stuff …
A. I didn’t read it. I heard the questions, so I know what they’re saying. I read MLB.com, the Dodger news, because I want to hear my guys’ comments, because it tells me what they’re thinking and how they’re thinking. Just a little thing they may say, a word in there, tells me something. If something’s going on with the guys, I’ll kind of read a little bit. But that's all.
Q. The event that led to the flare-up in firing talk was your comments in Milwaukee about wanting to see more fight from your team? It seems like guys have played a little harder since then, but then again, maybe it’s because you’re just playing better. Do you see any cause-effect going on there?
A. There’s more energy, but I think we have to give Yasiel [Puig] a lot of credit, because he brought a lot of energy. It’s always good to have a mixture of young and old. You get too many old guys, guys who are settled, they’re in the big leagues, nothing makes them excited. This kid’s exciting. The way he plays is infectious and, if you don’t like the way he plays and the reaction from people … man, that’s the way you’re supposed to play. You’re supposed to play like a little kid.
Everything he’s going through is right there to see. There’s no hiding it. It’s like, if he’s mad, he’s mad, if he’s happy, he’s happy. It’s great. Then, we started winning, and that’s where the true energy comes from.
A couple things happened. We got healthy in there. Hanley [Ramirez] came the same time as Puig. He was quietly just banging away, getting no attention until lately. Adrian [Gonzalez] continued to do his thing and, during that period, Andre [Ethier] started to swing the bat. All of a sudden, you’ve got four guys.
We kind of got beyond that period of having to nurse Hanley back. It was like, we’d win a series, and then it was like, 'Well, Hanley’s going to be down today.’ Finally, after Pittsburgh, I was like, this is crazy. You’ve got to play your guys, and Hanley wanted to play that day. ... I told the medical people, ‘We can’t keep doing this.’ That New York series was the first time we started just playing these guys, and that’s when we started playing better. Right there. We crushed the ball in both games. We only won one, but we swung the bats in both games.
Q. Hanley said the other day that, since he’s been a Dodger, he thinks differently. What do you make of that? Has his baggage been less cumbersome than you expected, given his reputation from Miami?
A. I didn’t really hear, because I don’t go and read about guys. I saw the big stuff, the clashes with management and some of the stuff on ESPN. I know how those things go, though. You see something, it could get blown out of proportion. You get six guys on this side and six guys on that side. That’s how those shows work. This guy says ‘bad’ and this guy says ‘good.’ It’s a fight and they argue.
I try to look at the whole picture. Here’s a young guy, had success, got paid. Nobody really around him. Organization-wise it can go in and go out. They go for it, then they kind of sell out. It’s just up and down. And I just knew how good he was. It’s like, 'This guy is so talented,' and you put him in the right situation and give him a chance. He’s just taken over, taken off with that opportunity. It’s like a new day.
I take this from my own childhood. I was a pain in the butt in grade school. Oh my God, I was in trouble all the time. I didn’t want to go to the school my mom and dad wanted to send me. They sent me across town a little bit, to a school my brother went to. I said, ‘You know what, I’m tired of being in trouble.’ ... The baseball coach there was great, he was tough, and it changed everything for me. I look at changes of scenery as a chance to say, ‘You know what, I’m done with the past. I don’t want that crap.’
Q. Tell me more about your high school coach, Quentin Merkel [from Memorial High in Evansville, Ind.]. Biggest influence on you as a manager?
A. He was tough. He was like, 'If you don't get your grades, if you get in trouble, you don’t play.' If you got caught smoking, you’re off the team. If you got detention and missed practice, you’re off. The first meeting we had is like a 3 o’clock meeting. School’s over at 2:50. He locks the door. If you come late, he’s like, ‘I’ll see you next year.’ That’s the way it was.
There were two or three of them that were late. Two of them just left. The one that stays, he gives him a chance. He wanted to see. You’ve got to fight for what you want.
He just retired. He had over 900 wins, playing 30 games a year. That’s a lot of baseball. He’s coming out for this series. They asked me if I could get him tickets, so he’s coming out. He’s awesome. Great guy. All the stuff he said stays with you. It was pretty simple, fundamental, solid. He pushed me to get better. That stuck with me to this day. He was a worker.