Dodgers’ year to forget
Dodger Stadium was the place to be last October. The Dodgers won the most games of any team in the National League. With a charismatic braided slugger and a Hall of Fame-worthy manager leading the way, the Dodgers delighted sellout crowds and finished three victories shy of the World Series.
Dodger Stadium will sit empty this October. While the owners battle in divorce court over who owns the Dodgers, the team has lost more games than it has won. The crowds are gone. So is the slugger, Manny Ramirez. Now, so is the manager.
Joe Torre announced Friday that he would not return as the Dodgers’ manager, the latest turn in this soap opera of a baseball season. Torre’s decision had been widely expected since spring training, when he walked away from negotiations for a contract extension, but the timing left the Dodgers in an awkward position.
In Torre’s place, the team announced, Don Mattingly will step in after this season. Mattingly, who has never managed at any level, has been the Dodgers’ batting coach since the middle of 2008, Torre’s first season with the team. Before that, Mattingly was part of Torre’s championship staff with the New York Yankees.
“It has been an incredible honor to wear the Dodger uniform and I will always carry with me some very special memories from the past three seasons,” Torre, 70, said in a statement released by the team. “This was not a decision I took lightly, but I believe it’s the right one for myself and my family and I’m truly thrilled that Donnie will be the one leading the Dodgers.”
Mattingly, 49, managed the Dodgers in one spring training game this year while Torre was in Taiwan with some of the team on an exhibition tour, and it didn’t turn out well: The Dodgers were penalized for batting out of order because the lineup card that had been posted in the clubhouse didn’t match the one given to the umpires.
That was followed by a game-changing blunder in July when Mattingly was filling in for Torre, who had been ejected from a game against the San Francisco Giants. The Dodgers led in that game, 5-4, with one out in the ninth inning, the bases loaded, and All-Star closer Jonathan Broxton on the mound.
Mattingly visited the mound to set the Dodgers’ defense, then, as he stepped off the mound, turned and stepped back onto the dirt as he fielded a final question from first baseman James Loney.
That move -- stepping back onto the mound after he had stepped off -- constituted a second trip and umpires ordered Broxton removed from the game. The Giants then continued their rally, winning, 7-5.
“The opportunity to manage the Los Angeles Dodgers is truly an honor,” Mattingly said in the team’s statement. “There are few organizations in the world with the history, tradition and track record of success as the Dodgers. I’m looking forward to continuing what I came here to accomplish with Joe and that’s to win a World Championship.”
Any longtime professional’s final year on a job should go more smoothly than Torre’s this season.
The Dodgers should have entered the season on an optimistic note, coming off back-to-back appearances in the National League championship series for the first time in 31 years. But Frank and Jamie McCourt announced their separation on the eve of last year’s championship series, the first act in a spectacularly bitter and public divorce and battle over who owns the team has colored perceptions since.
When the Dodgers declined to offer even a one-year contract to bring back their most dependable starting pitcher, Randy Wolf, fans wondered whether the money to pay for what might become the costliest divorce in California history had been siphoned from funds available for players.
The Dodgers said no. However, in an interview with The Times, club President Dennis Mannion said the team could invest the savings in any number of ways, not necessarily in player talent.
“If the opportunity is in buying more portable concession stands, that’s what you do,” he said.
The club so limited its spending that even the typically budget-conscious Minnesota Twins paid more for their players than the Dodgers did for theirs. Torre appeared to allude to the financial restraint in announcing the curious selection of Vicente Padilla as the Dodgers’ opening-day starter.
“You don’t have a No. 1,” Torre said.
Clayton Kershaw has emerged as that No. 1 starter, but the Dodgers’ depth has been so strained that they have granted 12 starts to Carlos Monasterios, who had started one game above the Class A level before this season. The Dodgers could have lost Monasterios had they tried to send him to the minor leagues, so they kept him on the major league roster all season, only the second time in 30 years they had reserved a roster spot all year for such an unproven player.
The performance of virtually every front-line offensive player stagnated or declined, with the exception of shortstop Rafael Furcal and Ramirez, who was injured so often he played in fewer games than since-departed reserve outfielder Garret Anderson.
Jonathan Broxton earned the save for the National League in the All-Star Game, then faltered so dramatically thereafter that Torre removed him as closer.
The Dodgers spent a club-record $5.25 million to sign their top draft pick, Texas high school pitcher Zach Lee. On the other hand, when the Chicago White Sox agreed to pick up the remaining $4 million on Ramirez’s salary but declined to trade a player in return, the Dodgers let him go anyway.
By that time, the Dodgers had papered over the “Mannywood” signs that decorated the stands in front of left field, replacing them with advertisements for an insurance company and a radio station.
Then there’s the case of center fielder Matt Kemp, who appeared on the verge of stardom after winning the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards last year.
As Kemp’s performance regressed in April, General Manager Ned Colletti called him out on a radio show, wondering aloud whether Kemp might have slipped after signing a contract that guaranteed him $10.95 million. The agent for Kemp, former All-Star pitcher Dave Stewart, shot back that Colletti sounded like “a man panicking” and ought to “look at himself in the mirror.”
The situation exploded again in August, after Torre had benched Kemp following a dispute with coach Bob Schaefer. Larry Bowa, another coach, had publicly questioned whether Kemp gave his full effort every day. Stewart called the public scolding of Kemp “a bunch of back-seat crap.”
The Dodgers, in first place as late as June 17, have fallen into fourth place, watching helplessly as the state’s two other NL clubs, the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants, battle for the National League West championship.
Attendance has plummeted as well. The Dodgers need to average 42,772 fans a game over their final nine home games to avoid their worst home attendance figure since 2005.
That leaves the baseball drama in town not at Dodger Stadium but little more than a mile away, at Los Angeles Superior Court, where the McCourts are battling for control of the team.
The revelations brought forth by the divorce trial -- with the McCourts spending lavishly on themselves, not so lavishly on the team and adding loan upon loan to the Dodgers’ debt load -- have prompted Commissioner Bud Selig to consider whether to intervene.
Peter O’Malley, whose family owned the Dodgers for 47 years, this week publicly urged the McCourts to sell.
“The current Dodger ownership has lost all credibility throughout the city,” O’Malley told The Times.
The trial resumes Monday. The season is over.