Commentary

He's one of 'their guys'

With a new three-year contract, Don Mattingly has been empowered to lead L.A.

Updated: January 9, 2014, 7:48 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Looking back on it now, it's actually rather remarkable that Ned Colletti and Don Mattingly still have the jobs they held when the new ownership group bought the team from Frank McCourt for a record, $2.15 billion in May of 2012.

Just about everything has changed at Dodger Stadium since the group fronted by basketball legend Magic Johnson took over. The roster, the stadium, the front office, the farm system. All have been lavishly improved and retrofitted. In another month, the launch of the team's new cable network will put an exclamation point on the overhaul process. As the team's marketing slogan proclaims in billboards across the city, it's "A Whole New Blue."

Which brings us back to Colletti and Mattingly, the two most important figures held over from the McCourt days. Many new owners would have thanked them for their service and replaced them at some point with "their own guys." It's what most new owners do, in any sport or any business for that matter. Regime change is rarely bloodless.

[+] EnlargeDon Mattingly
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsDon Mattingly can now lead the Dodgers knowing he has the full backing of the organization.

Instead, the new owners gave both men a chance. To prove themselves, or maybe just to be themselves, and at the end of what became a two-year evaluation period, both ended up becoming "their guys."

For Colletti, that show of confidence came in the form of a contract extension last winter. For Mattingly, it came on Tuesday as the team announced it had signed him to a new three-year contract that will keep him in L.A. through 2016.

Much was made about Mattingly's tense press conference in October, when he vented his frustrations about going through the season as a lame-duck manager. Much will always be made about why he said what he said, what he actually was saying, and whether he should've taken any of it public. It was great theater.

But to focus on it is to miss what's actually important about the situation.

The Dodgers have decided who they're going to be and what they're going to be about in the future. The evaluation period is over. The construction phase is done. Take off your safety goggles, the future is clear now and Don Mattingly will be leading it.

"To me, the three years is sending a message as an organization that we're whole now," Mattingly said in a wide-ranging interview with ESPNLosAngeles. "It's not the security that's important, it's the confidence. Go do your job and we trust you."

That's really the only issue Mattingly ever meant to force at that press conference. It wasn't even really about him. It was about what the organization needed going forward -- clarity. Of mind, of purpose, of direction and of philosophy.

"What do we stand for? Who are we going to be?" Mattingly said. "I like guys to be loose. I like guys to play free. But that doesn't mean I like guys being sloppy and undisciplined. Just because a guy's got a beard like a Brian Wilson, doesn't mean he's undisciplined. I like all that. I like guys having the freedom.

"We've got to know who we are and what we stand for. When we start getting into those conversations, that's where the whole organization needs to say, 'This is who we are and what we believe in. This is what we'll put up with. Or this is what we expect. And there's accountability for what we're trying to do.'"

Deciding all of that means deciding who you want to lead. Whose values you have confidence in. Whose voice you trust to make it a reality.

All Mattingly needed to know is whether or not that was him.

"I'm not worried about any of this [contractual] stuff," he said. "But I always want to work somewhere where people want me there and trust me.

"Once I had conversations with [team president] Stan Kasten and [chairman] Mark Walter, I felt it right away."

Sure, he was frustrated no one in the organization had let it be known publicly that the option on his contract for 2014 had vested when the Dodgers beat the Atlanta Braves in the National League Division Series.

"It bothered me that you just didn't come out and say that," Mattingly admitted. "But part of it was just frustration. It was a long year. And really, just not getting there. I felt like we had our chances to get to the World Series against the Cardinals. You work all winter and spring and go through a long season, and then it comes to a crash.

"But I was proud of what the team accomplished and how they handled themselves after what we went through. It didn't end up where we wanted it to go, but we went from 10 ½ down to 11 or 12 up, that's an historical thing. It wasn't enough because we didn't win a World Series, but it also hadn't happened since 1900 or so."

Looking back on it all these months later, that's the part Mattingly regrets the most. That the focus turned onto him and not what his team accomplished last season.

"I wish it wouldn't have come out. I wish it would've stayed in house. I guess that's my own learning experience," Mattingly said.

"I just don't think people in general want to hear about it. I'd rather talk about baseball and how we're going to win, how we're going to compete with the Giants and the Diamondbacks and everybody else, than to think about the business side of it. It's part of it and we all want to take care of our families and take care of ourselves, but I don't really think fans want to hear about that. They want to talk about winning games and how we're going to be great and how we're going to get better."

To that end, the front office made a change in Mattingly's staff in October. The Dodgers' hope was that introducing a new voice in the dugout and into Mattingly's in-game decision-making will help him to grow as a manager, so they let go of his good friend and confidant, bench coach Trey Hillman, and promoted the highly-regarded Tim Wallach from third base coach. It's not something Mattingly was on board with, but he's made his peace with it now.

"That one I don't quite understand. I know that all teams have a little bit of turnover. That's part of it," Mattingly said. "But that's a tough one for me because I feel like Trey is just a solid baseball guy and was totally committed to the Dodgers.

"It's part of our culture in baseball. They make changes that you don't understand. But I can honestly say, since I took the job there's certain things that happened that I didn't want to have happen and I look back later and go, 'I'm really thankful that Ned did that.' "

He's also excited about working with Wallach.

"Wally is great. I'm totally comfortable with him," Mattingly said. "I know he wants to manage and you really want him to get the jobs that he's going for in Detroit and Seattle, but selfishly -- I knew if he didn't get those that he was going to be our bench guy -- so selfishly you're kind of going, 'Man, 'I really want Wally back.'

"Tim's just a quality person and a quality baseball person. He's got his opinions, he's smart, he's prepared, the whole thing. We're lucky to have him."

Yes, there's a part of Mattingly that recoils at the suggestion he needed help beyond what Hillman could provide as bench coach. He keeps a close relationship with both Joe Torre and Tony La Russa and frequently runs through scenarios and situations with them and checks his decision-making.

"I always seek good counsel," he said simply.

But Mattingly's worked long enough with Colletti to trust him, even if it's not what he wanted. Their relationship has evolved to the point where they can disagree with each other, dig their heels in, and yell at each other without worrying that it will affect anything going forward.

"As a manager, that's one of the things I've learned over the last three years is that I don't have to agree with everything Ned says and Ned doesn't have to agree with every move that I make, but we gotta have enough respect for each other that we can kind of argue and speak our minds and it doesn't hang on to your relationship," Mattingly said. "That's one thing I feel great about with Ned. He can have a temper or get fired up, and he's going to tell you what he thinks, but the next day it's not something he's holding on to. It's gone. We've moved on to how we're going to win today."

That's where they all stand now. Moving on to the place where the conversation is only about baseball and how the Dodgers can build off of what they accomplished last season. To discussions about what they believe in, and what values they want to promote. To decisions about which players they want to build around, and how best to do so.

But the big issues have been settled now. The men in charge have been empowered to fully take charge.

Don Mattingly is finally the Dodgers' guy.

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