BILL PLASCHKE

Dodgers should not be leaving Don Mattingly in limbo

Manager says his request for the team to pick up an option year in his contract beyond this season was turned down, so his job could be in jeopardy if the club with the $200-million payroll struggles.

On the third Saturday in January, the thermostats in the quaint river city of Evansville, Ind., read 53 degrees. But in the winter home of Don Mattingly, thetemperature was the same as it has been throughout the off-season, that being quietly boiling.

The Dodgers manager's most compelling experience in the last six months did not involve the hours of front-office negotiations that eventually handed him the most expensive team in baseball history, but the 30 seconds in which he was told he was not yet assured of managing them beyond this season.

Last fall, Mattingly politely asked the club to exercise its one-year option before this final year of his contract. The Dodgers politely refused. He will thus begin the summer as a lame duck, except nothing about Donnie Baseball is ever lame, so let's just say he will be paddling upstream in a situation that could get absolutely daffy.

"It was a 30-second conversation about the option, they said that wasn't the plan for me or my coaches, it was a moot point, and I'm fine with that," Mattingly said in a phone interview. "But you would have liked for them to pick up the extensions so the players could be shown confidence. You never want it to be like, after a couple of bad games, people are saying, 'Oh, are they gonna change managers now?"

A couple of bad games? Mattingly's leash might not be that long. With a projected opening-day payroll of more than $200 million, twice as much as most other teams, the Dodgers will carry the highest expectations in the game. Virtually all of that weight will descend upon the manager, whose strong clubhouse leadership amid the off-field chaos of his first two seasons has nonetheless failed to get them into the playoffs.

If this year's Dodgers team of Kemp and Kershaw and Gonzalez and Crawford and Greinke doesn't rise up, somebody is taking a fall. By not picking up his option, the Dodgers are making it official it's going to be Mattingly.

Is that fair? Even Mattingly acknowledges it is, saying, "If I don't get my guys to play well, it's on me, it's my fault."

But is it smart? In a clubhouse filled with rich and entitled athletes who will lose nothing by pointing fingers and making excuses, maybe not so much.

You're willing to make a six-year commitment worth $62 million for a pitcher — Hyun-Jin Ryu — that General Manager Ned Colletti has never seen in person, yet you won't stabilize the clubhouse with a one-year commitment that could force you to eat around a million bucks in manager's money? Isn't that stepping over common sense to get to extravagance? This team's narrative should be based on Kemp's swing or Crawford's speed or Kershaw's curve, not Mattingly's job.

"I've played many years on a one-year contract, so I'm good, but the one area you have to deal with is the questions you're asking me now," Mattingly said. "That's a potential distraction for my club. That becomes part of the story line. My job is to cut out all the noise for these guys. That noise can get us away from playing our best baseball."

Colletti, who was smartly given a multiyear extension in the fall, says he's not hearing any noise.

"There shouldn't be anything read into that, it shouldn't be an issue," he said of the failure to pick up the option. Mattingly "knows how close we are, he knows how we feel about it, and it will be addressed at some point, I just can't tell you when."

Colletti added that "We're in a good place, we get along, we respect each other, it will all get worked out."

A good place, perhaps, but with no security for the dugout boss it will be an increasingly uncomfortable place. Mattingly isn't only on baseball's warmest seat, but he is also facing one of its bumpiest rides.

"We're gonna be the bad guys, we're going to come into every stadium as the bad guy," Mattingly said. "If we win, we're supposed to play good. If we lose, we're a bunch of spoiled guys, everyone playing the blame game."

Mattingly said he's not going to run from this perception, or the idea that with Dodgers owners wanting quick return on their investment, every game could be his last.

"I won't manage scared, and I don't want my players playing scared," he said. "You can fight the perception or say that's the way it's going to be boys, accept it, don't listen to the noise, just go out there every night and attack."

Even off the field, Mattingly wants to act as if he is going to manage the Dodgers forever. He is flying to town this week to be host of his first local charity function, Thursday night at the Sports Museum of Los Angeles. Typical of Mattingly's style, it won't be a gala dinner, but a comedy cocktail party hosted by George Lopez. Mattingly's charity is just as unadorned, a foundation that essentially buys baseball gear for needy kids.

"I did a clinic out here with some inner-city coaches, and they said their biggest issue was that they don't have any gloves for the kids, and I thought that was crazy," he said. "Baseball is a game of pitch and catch, and you can't catch without a glove. I think about all the lessons in life I learned through baseball, I want kids to have that same chance."

You can buy tickets on Dodgers.com. You can watch Mattingly learn even more of those lessons of life this season in a Dodgers dugout that will be sweltering. He says he only hopes his players have spent the winter watching another highly touted Los Angeles team struggle.

"Did we learn from the Lakers so far? That's a good lesson for us," he said. "They put a super team together, and so far it hasn't worked."

A super team that, incidentally, fired its coach after five games.

"Let's learn that lesson and don't do that," Mattingly said, and he may have been laughing, but it was hard to tell.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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