Do you want me or not?
That was the question Manager Don Mattingly put forth to upper management in a tense and awkward news conference Monday at Dodger Stadium.
Mattingly revealed that the team option in his contract for 2014 became guaranteed when the Dodgers beat the Atlanta Braves in a National League division series. However, the manager quickly added, "That doesn't mean I'll be back."
Mattingly and General Manager Ned Colletti sat only a few feet apart on the dais, but it was apparent a sizable chasm had developed between Mattingly and the front office that Colletti represented.
Mattingly said he wanted to return the Dodgers next season but made it clear he didn't want to be a lame-duck manager again.
"This has been a frustrating, tough year, honestly," Mattingly said. "With the payroll and the guys that you have, it puts you in a tough spot in the clubhouse. We dealt with that all year long. Really what it does, it puts me in a spot where everything that I do is questioned because I'm basically trying out or auditioning to say, 'Can he manage or can he not manage?' To me, it's at that point where, three years in, you either know or you don't."
Translation: Offer me a multi-year contract. Or else.
Last winter, Mattingly predicted how his contract status would affect him and his team, which is why he asked the Dodgers to exercise his option before the season. They didn't. So, naturally, when the Dodgers were in last place in May, there was rampant media speculation Mattingly would be fired.
In the division series, Mattingly had to field a question about whether his uncertain job status factored into him starting Clayton Kershaw on three days' rest. In light of the revelation Monday about why Mattingly's option vested, the questioned turned out to be a very valid one. But rather than offer Mattingly any public assurances, team President Stan Kasten called the inquiring reporter something that can't printed in a family newspaper.
All of this could have been avoided had Kasten budged from his stance of refusing to comment on Mattingly's situation.
Kasten operated under the mistaken assumption that if he didn't address it, it wouldn't be written or talked about. The tactic might have worked in smaller cities in which Kasten previously ran teams but backfired spectacularly in America's second-largest media market.
Not wanting to cause any distractions for his team, Mattingly played along with Kasten during the season, according to a person familiar with the manager's thinking. But Mattingly became upset in the days that followed the Dodgers' elimination, as no one reached out to him to address his or his coaching staff's future.
Kasten usually loves talking in front of television cameras but conveniently excused himself from the Monday news conference. Later, he declined an additional opportunity to defend his handling of the matter. As such, Colletti was left in the uncomfortable position of answering questions on his behalf.
Colletti wants Mattingly back and it makes sense he would. Mattingly's departure would place him next in line to be fired. But Colletti also couldn't back Mattingly completely, as doing so would amount to him questioning Kasten's policies.
Colletti drew on the political savvy that helped him survive for eight seasons, simultaneously walking a tightrope and tap-dancing around land mines.
Colletti first complimented Mattingly, reminding everyone he hired Mattingly and saying he thought Mattingly has demonstrated he is capable of managing in the majors.
But asked if he understood Mattingly's concerns about being a lame duck, Colletti offered this non-answer: "It's a personal taste. There's a lot of guys that have won on one-year contracts — not one-year contracts, but the end of a contract. There's people that have won the World Series in that situation and there's people that haven't. There's people that have had three-year contracts and didn't survive the first two weeks of it."
Colletti then resorted to the ever-popular blame-the-media gambit.
"Certainly in the month of May, a lot of people that do what you do for a living had it all figured out, down to the very day it was going to happen," Colletti said. "It never happened. It's like when you hear the world's going to end, you know? That's the same type of deal. The world's still here and we're still here."
Basically, Colletti had nothing substantive to say.
Another potential source of contention came to light when Mattingly was asked if he wanted to retain his entire coaching staff.
"If it was up to me," Mattingly said in the affirmative, folding his arms and looking away from Colletti.
Colletti was asked if he felt the same way.
"We'll talk about everything internally," Colletti said.
In other words, no.
But Mattingly is in a box. Because he's under contract for next season, he can't simply walk away and manage, say, the Washington Nationals.
There are only two peaceful resolutions here: Kasten has to sign Mattingly to a multi-year deal or fire him.
Anything else and the Dodgers are asking for trouble.