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All the pieces are falling into place for Don Mattingly

Don Mattingly rolls up his uniform sleeve, revealing a tattoo of a cross wrapped in blood-dripping thorns. On his right biceps is another with the words, “No turning back.”

From a necklace beneath his jersey, three crosses dangle.

To some Dodgers fans, the 49-year-old Mattingly might seem like the managerial equivalent of a trust fund baby, a once iconic player who rode into Los Angeles on Joe Torre’s coattails and inherited the manager’s job at the end of last season.

But as he sits for an interview in the small and simple manager’s office before a recent Arizona Fall League game, it’s clear that the ink and the jewelry are symbols of a rise far more complicated than that.

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Skipped over the for the New York Yankees’ managerial position in the fall of 2007, the longtime coach has worked long and hard for the opportunity to call the shots for a major league team.

Away from the field, the challenges have been no less significant, including a divorce that left him crippled by depression.

This off-season is one of major change in his professional and personal lives. He has plans to marry next month.

“A lot of stuff going on,” Mattingly said. “A lot pretty quick.”

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To help him with the new baseball life that awaits him, the Dodgers sent Mattingly to manage in the Arizona Fall League, in what is something of a six-team finishing school for top prospects on the verge of breaking into the majors.

Stephen Strasburg, Jason Heyward and Buster Posey played here a year ago, but the big leagues feel like light-years away. Crowds are sparse and a significant percentage of spectators are scouts, leaving the ballparks almost completely silent no matter what happens.

For Mattingly, who had never managed at any level, this is a starting point. He manages the Phoenix Desert Dogs, a team of young players from the Dodgers, Yankees, Florida Marlins, Atlanta Braves and Oakland Athletics.

The prospects seem amused to be sharing a clubhouse with someone of Mattingly’s stature.

“He’s Donnie Baseball,” said Justin Miller, 23, a right-hander in the Dodgers’ system. Outfielder Trayvon Robinson, also 23 and a Dodger, can’t recall Mattingly as a player, but notes, “I remember seeing him on the Simpsons.”

How much Mattingly is learning about managing is questionable. The players’ major league clubs dictate how much they will play at a particular position or how many pitches they will throw on a day.

The work is unglamorous, but Mattingly attacks his job with a diligence that seems at odds with his laid-back demeanor.

Ned Colletti, the Dodgers’ general manager, says Mattingly was initially scheduled to report to Arizona midway through the league season, in late October. But Mattingly asked for the plans to be changed when the Dodgers were eliminated from postseason contention.

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“He came to me and said, ‘I’m going right away,’ ” Colletti said.

With most games starting at 12:30 p.m., the players don’t start arriving at the clubhouse at Phoenix Municipal Stadium until after 9 a.m. But Mattingly is there by 7 a.m. most days.

Those extra hours are spent mostly in solitude, watching CNN and reading — “So I don’t get caught up in the circle of ESPN and baseball,” he said.

His current read: “The umpire’s manual,” Mattingly said. “Trying to get their names and faces.”

Next up: The rule book. “I need to know it, obviously,” he said.

He was making reference to a gaffe he made in July after he’d taken over when Torre was ejected from a game. Visiting closer Jonathan Broxton, Mattingly stepped on the mound and off, then on again. That counted as two visits, requiring Broxton to be taken out of a game the Dodgers ended up losing.

Mattingly studies voraciously, and he keeps pads on which he has scribbled notes for years. A row of different-colored markers neatly lines the inside of the small compartment on the front of his backpack.

“I’m always writing at night — things I would change, things I would do differently,” he said. “When I write a note, it sticks in my head differently.”

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His penchant for details may make him more of hands-on manager than Torre, who had his coaches warm up the team while he entertained reporters and guests.

Mattingly makes his way around the field in the hours leading up to a game, throwing batting practice, watching bullpen sessions and talking to players, all things he wants to continue during the regular season.

“I want to be on the field,” Mattingly said. “It’s a better place to talk to the guys. It’s a relaxed atmosphere. You want to make sure you know what’s going on, not just with the hitters. I really look at a BP as an opportunity to do that.”

Mattingly says he has a clear vision of how he wants the Dodgers to play, and it has more to do with clubhouse culture than tactics.

“Good teams I played on … just the tone that they play with, the energy they play with, how they go about it. When you get it going the right way, you get everyone going in the same direction and it’s a powerful thing.”

But before thinking about getting a group of players headed in the right direction, Mattingly had to reorganize his own life.

Appointed hitting coach on Torre’s staff and anointed his successor in 2007, Mattingly put on hold his move to Los Angeles because of problems at home. After 28 years of marriage, he was headed for a divorce. Mattingly’s youngest son was still in high school at the time.

The issues became public in February 2008 when Mattingly’s estranged wife was arrested and charged with public intoxication and disorderly conduct.

“It was hard,” Mattingly said. “It’s not something you want anybody to live with, just how the kids have to deal with that. Even if it wasn’t public.”

Depressed, Mattingly stayed with the Dodgers as a “special assignment coach,” but he remained in Indiana and rarely left his apartment.

Raised Catholic, he turned back to religion.

“Any time you have a difficult time it’s like you always reach in there,” Mattingly said of his faith. “I don’t know how to explain it, but there’s always a comfort there. I wrestle with it intellectually because of the science … but there’s something there that brings comfort.”

A new relationship brought more comfort. Like Mattingly, his fiancee is divorced with children.

By the middle of the 2008 season, he was ready to join the Dodgers.

“It took a while,” Mattingly said of getting over his divorce. “It still feels like a part of me. We had three boys together. I feel more comfortable, probably in the last year or so. I started to feel like I’m not trying to be guarded or anything.”

He proposed to his fiancee last winter. They plan to be married in Indiana on Dec. 10.

So his personal life is in order. And he has the job he always wanted.

All that remains is to win some games.

“I feel I’m ready,” he said.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com


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