T.J. SIMERS

Nice guy Don Mattingly is still looking for answers

The Dodgers manager takes breakfast with a Times columnist to discuss his second year on the job.

SAN DIEGO — The other night after the Dodgers lost to the Padres, while the media met with Manager Don Mattingly, screaming could be heard from the nearby coaches' dressing room.

"Passionate" screaming? General Manager Ned Colletti says with a smirk when asked if it was he.

"Yes, I had a passionate discussion with the staff, and then I had another one with a [softer] voice with Donnie. I think every once in a while you just need to recalibrate."

Colletti wouldn't say what rankles him — a good bet: a lack of true grit down the stretch is on the list — while Mattingly says the blame is his for allowing "little things" to go unattended.

So Mattingly met with his team Wednesday to remind everyone how he expects them to compete as Dodgers.

"There's a difference between being a nice guy," Mattingly says, "and making sure you get what you want from your team."

And that's where we begin with Mattingly, consistently friendly and accommodating. Or, as George Steinbrenner put it when Mattingly retired with the Yankees: "I don't believe any player on the New York Yankees was ever as great as Don Mattingly in every way during my years as an owner. He was a great athlete and a great player. Some great athletes are not great human beings and vice versa. This man combined all of that."

Poke and prod, win or lose and Mattingly is just a good guy.

But can a nice guy get his team to finish first?

"That's part of something I have to deal with now," says Mattingly over breakfast to discuss his second year on the job.

"I want to be a nice guy; I want to be a good guy; and a fair guy. But I also want my players to know I'm in charge. I want them to know this is the way I want it; this is the way it's going to be.

"The last few weeks, some things had gotten out of hand. And that's my fault. There were just some things that needed to be said, not only about this year but about next as well."

So does he have control of his team?

"It's not so much about control, because I don't want to control these guys," he says. "I know I can't. I can't control veteran guys who make tons of money."

That's understood, but few admit as much, Mattingly's honesty another engaging quality.

"They have to have respect for what we're trying to do," Mattingly says, "And I believe they do."

The Dodgers won both Wednesday and Thursday and Mattingly is still talking about winning them all.

Who knows where the nice guy will ultimately finish, but it won't be first again.

"If he was only a nice guy he wouldn't have played in the major leagues and he wouldn't have had the career he's had," says Colletti. "He is a nice guy, but he's also a great competitor."

It was a year ago to the day when Mattingly and I met in Phoenix to discuss his first year on the job, the Dodgers finishing third but coming on like an improved team.

"I was proud of what happened; we played hard to the end," says Mattingly, "and got as much out of the ability we had as we could get."

But this season the Dodgers appeared dead before their time, and questions about Mattingly's effectiveness are fair game if there is no miracle.

"Someone has to be blamed," he says. "If I want my players to show toughness, how would it look if I can't handle a little criticism?"

He's not much on a show of emotion, explaining his dad was a man of few words and folks have been known to tell him, "You're just like your dad."

But he'll also say he "loves" his players, hugging Tom Lasorda when he sees him and is so invested in winning it's "painful" when the Dodgers don't.

Mattingly has already been told he will be back, and as wacky as things have gone the past two years he probably has enough goodwill built up to buy even more time. But he wants none of it.

"I don't want to buy time," he says. "If they don't think I'm the guy, the Dodgers should let me go."

He makes it clear, "I want to be here," but as poorly as things have gone with the addition of high-priced talent, there's a hint of uncertainty in what he has to say.

"Why would you have this much talent and say, 'I don't know if this is the guy?'" he says. "Don't waste the year; if you don't know by now, you don't know."

But we really don't know, do we? We know he's a great guy and good things should happen to good people, but he arrives in New York the year after the Yankees win a World Series and leaves the year before they win another.

Every Yankee seemingly gets a World Series ring except Donnie Baseball.

"My whole thing is counting your blessings," he says. "I've been blessed by working with great people, blessed with two great parents and getting every opportunity to be successful."

But as good people go, he didn't get the dream job as Yankees manager.

"A blessing," he says. "It was the wrong time. I was going through a divorce with a lot of personal pain and then to deal with all that goes into being Yankee manager would be too much.

"I'm [married] to a great person and blessed again. That's the way I live. I believe good things will happen, and that's why I expect to win every day."

Checking the Dodgers' record, it doesn't always go his way. But is the manager at fault?

"If you don't have the horses you don't win," he says. "Now if you have the horses and can't get them to play, or they don't play hard for you, then it's on you."

So is this debacle on Mattingly?

"Since this last trade [with Boston] we've been really bad," says Mattingly. "But I wouldn't say this whole season has been a disappointment. We hung in there earlier, but since the trade we haven't put it together. I don't have the answer.

"I know our job as a staff is to provide the proper environment, prepare everyone and get everyone committed to a goal. But at some point the players have to perform."

I sure hope he mentioned that in Wednesday's meeting.

t.j.simers@latimes.com
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