After half a month of calisthenics and a week of games, Joe Torre already feels like a distant memory for the Dodgers, and the idea of "manager Don Mattingly" is shedding some of its new-car smell.
Even given the bonhomie typical of spring training, the initial reviews of Mattingly stepping into the skipper's shoes have been positive. Or perhaps the more accurate word is "friendly." There is a fresh attitude in Dodgertown that contrasts with the festering discontent that underscored the second half of 2010, and there is a new manager, and while the two might or might not have anything to do with each other, the correlation hasn't hurt Mattingly. No one right now misses Torre, whose world-weary presence over last season's deteriorating team came to seem stultifying. But whatever you might think of the manager-turned-MLB executive vice president for baseball operations, he casts a considerable shadow that Mattingly might have had trouble stepping out of. Instead, these Dodgers are now Mattingly's Misfits.
But much as this honeymoon might have less to do with Mattingly than the natural balancing of the emotional scales, the end of the honeymoon could easily involve factors beyond his control. The Dodger offense looks like an office building in dire need of retrofitting, with but one player (Andre Ethier) in the projected starting lineup who played in at least 100 games last season with an on-base percentage above .330. The earthquake might not come -- Rafael Furcal could stay healthy, James Loney and Matt Kemp could bounce back, someone else might surprise -- but Mattingly is going to be tested from the outset. Is he going to try to manufacture runs like it's the Dead Ball Era, at the risk of undermining the big inning the team and its fans will crave? Or will he sit back and hope for the best, a best that might never come?
The biggest advance criticism of Mattingly has been his lack of managerial experience in the major or minor leagues, but it's not clear that any amount of worldliness could have taught him the machinations to generate a comfort zone of scoring from this crew. In order to be viewed as a success, Mattingly probably needs to do the very thing that sounds almost too good to be true. Through the force of his quiet, tough-but-encouraging personality, he needs to somehow get the Loneys and Kemps to play to the very best of their abilities, and to keep it going over the long haul of his very first season at the helm.