Commentary

Don Mattingly showing he's a leader

Dodgers' players rave about their manager and say he's 'a great communicator'

Originally Published: June 7, 2012
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Ruben Sierra took a long time to circle the bases after hitting his first home run as a New York Yankee in 1995. Then-Yankees manager Buck Showalter was not pleased, and prepared to talk to Sierra as soon as he reached the dugout. Yankees first baseman/captain Don Mattingly looked at Showalter and said, "I've got this.'' So Mattingly walked with Sierra up the tunnel that leads to the clubhouse, and privately -- so not to embarrass him in front of teammates -- told Sierra that his deliberate tour of the bases was not the way the Yankees play.

That's how Mattingly played the game, few played it better, and no one played it more correctly, more professionally and more passionately than Mattingly. Now he's becoming as good as a manager as he was a player, using the same principles, fundamentals and the same intensity and integrity. He needed all of that last season to guide the Los Angeles Dodgers to 82 victories during a season dominated by ownership turmoil. And he has needed every bit of that this season as he has led the Dodgers to the best record in the major leagues despite having to use the disabled list 16 times, including twice for star center fielder Matt Kemp.

[+] EnlargeDon Mattingly
Ralph Freso/Getty ImagesDon Mattingly, 51, is in his second season as the Dodgers' manager.

"He is unbelievable," Dodgers outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. said. "He is such a great communicator, and communication is the most important part to managing. Even though he was a great player, he is one of two managers I've had that haven't forgotten how hard the game is to play. When you are going through a slump, he knows what you're going through. He is always on your side, but he is firm. He's not a yeller, but he'll let you know what is on his mind, but he will do it in a way that makes sure he doesn't disrespect you."

Dodgers utility man Jerry Hairston Jr. is with his ninth team. He has played for all kinds of managers, and says of Mattingly, "He is so impressive. He was a great player, he played in a big market in New York, so he can relate [to] the stars of this team, Matt Kemp and Andre [Ethier] and Clayton [Kershaw]. But he can also relate to the 25th man on the team. He understands all the ups and downs that all players go through. I was blown away by that."

Dodgers shortstop Dee Gordon began the season as the leadoff hitter, but struggled so badly, Mattingly sat him down for a few games, then dropped him to eighth in the batting order.

"He talked to me about it before he did it, I trust him with everything he does, I listen to every word he says," Gordon said. "I know he was doing it with the team first in his mind."

Winning, and team, has always come first with Mattingly. He plays the part well of the naive, small-town guy from Evansville, Ind., the hick from the Midwest trying to figure out the big city. But he is so much more than that. He is really smart, and he has an edge to him. He is so observant, having kept his eyes open for all those years while playing for Billy Martin, Lou Piniella and Showalter, and being the bench coach for Joe Torre with the Yankees and Dodgers.

"The most important part of managing is this: When there is an issue, let's get to it right away, right now," Mattingly said. "If I see something in your eyes, I know something is wrong, so let's sit down and talk about it. There's usually a sense of relief when you're done."

In the winter of 2011, before spring training began, Mattingly called reliever Jonathan Broxton, who had struggled mightily down the stretch in 2010, and told him, "You are my closer. Period.'' In spring training 2011, Mattingly's first spring training as a big league manager, he sat Kemp down and explained to what was needed of him. Kemp had exceptional ability, of course, but he was coming off a subpar season. Mattingly told Kemp, "If you're not interested in playing defense, then you're not interested in winning. If you're not interested in getting a secondary lead, you're not interested in winning." Kemp got the message, and went out and had one of the best seasons in the history of the Dodgers.

Mattingly said the biggest lesson he learned from Torre "is that it's a really, really long season. And you have to manage your team that way. Like right now, I have to give [two veteran players] Jerry [Hairston Jr.] and Bobby [Abreu] a day off now and then to keep them fresh so I'll have them for later in the season. It's not easy to do that now with all the injuries, but you have to. But at some point you'll have to play them when they need a rest."

Dodgers utility man Adam Kennedy is with his sixth team, and he said of Mattingly, "I sit on the bench a lot, and I watch him during the games. He is very impressive. You can tell how the dugout is run, and where it comes from. It's a good place to be because of him."

With all of the Dodgers' injuries, Mattingly has had to change his lineup daily. He smiled and said, "Making out the lineup takes a little more time than it used to," but I take it as a challenge, not an excuse. Mattingly has hit Kennedy fourth in the lineup this year, and he also hit Hairston cleanup for the first time in his career. "Obviously it's not ideal when I'm hitting fourth -- not that I can't do it -- but he has to mix and match every day with all the guys that we have out of the lineup," Hairston said. "I just hope he puts me back in the three-hole: I went 5-for-5 there."

The most important part of managing is this: When there is an issue, let's get to it right away, right now. If I see something in your eyes, I know something is wrong, so let's sit down and talk about it. There's usually a sense of relief when you're done.

-- Don Mattingly

In order to better prepare to be a manager, Mattingly did something unusual: After being named Dodgers manager after Torre resigned after the 2010 season, Mattingly went to manage in the Arizona Fall League, an invaluable experience. "I was sitting on the bench, managing the game, and it occurred to me that if I thought about each situation as if I was a player, it would help me as a manager," he said. "When I would play first base, and it was in the late innings, and up came a guy that liked to pull the ball, and the pitcher was throwing a cutter, I guarded the line a little more to prevent a double. Once I started thinking that way as a manager, I was much more prepared to handle the strategy of the game."

No player has played the game more intelligently than Mattingly, and no one played it with more conviction. On the final day of the 1987 season, on a cold, rainy Sunday at Yankee Stadium, Mattingly took batting practice on the field, just him and one of the coaches, at 9 a.m. There was nothing to be won that day, there was no batting title at stake, but Mattingly, hitting .327 at the time, was out there anyway. When asked later why he was hitting alone that day, in the cold and rain, a day before heading home, he said, "I had some terrible swings yesterday. I couldn't go home swinging the bat like that."

In 1995, when Mattingly was in the final year of his career, a career that was shortened by a back injury, he went to Showalter and told him to get him out of the No. 4 spot in the order, he no longer deserved to hit fourth, and he was hurting the team. So, Showalter moved him down in the order. Later that year, Mattingly told Showalter that the Yankees needed to go get another first baseman because he wasn't providing what the Yankees needed at that position. In that offseason, they made a trade with the Seattle Mariners for Tino Martinez, who went on to win four world championship rings with the Yankees, four more than Mattingly won.

Now he is trying to bring the Dodgers their first world championship since 1988. He is 51 now, and he "loves being a manager." You walk into his office, and there is always a sense of calm, no matter what is going on, no matter who is hurt that day.

"Donnie is so good at this," Dodgers bench coach Trey Hillman said. "I've told him, 'I am here to help you with whatever you need. If you want me to deliver a difficult message for you, I will.' He looked at me and said, 'No, I will deliver all the difficult messages. That's my job.'"