Dodgers

Far from unexpected, Don Mattingly’s exit from Dodgers still seemed sudden

Don Mattingly

Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly leaves the field after a visit with the pitcher during a playoff game against the Atlanta Braves on Oct. 6, 2013.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Yesterday’s bright protege, today’s old news. Don Mattingly came but could not quite conquer. Pushed the Dodgers to the precipice, just not over it.

It seems stunning he managed the Dodgers for five years. Five quick years, five years of watching him grow and struggle and lead the Dodgers to a record three consecutive division titles.

Five years is the longest anyone has managed the Dodgers since Tommy Lasorda resigned in 1996. Mattingly came with Joe Torre, as the manager in waiting — the unofficial next guy who took over in 2011.

He was impossible to dislike. Pleasant, friendly, a Midwest boy coming to his second big city. He was a New York Yankee, of course. Some could never get past that.

And now it’s over. Despite all the talk and speculation, his exit Thursday somehow felt sudden. His completely unexplained exit. Presumably he wanted it that way.

They were five sometimes tumultuous years. He started under the ownership of Frank McCourt, and what dark enemy from the netherworld would you ever wish that upon? He survived through team bankruptcy, all those empty Dodger Stadium seats and McCourt’s ultimate ouster.

He never had a losing season, won at least 92 games in each of his last three, yet was never fully embraced by the faithful in Los Angeles.

It’s easy to criticize a manager. Just about every manager in every city is constantly condemned by team followers for decisions made and not made, all somehow convinced the next guy will magically get it right.

If Mattingly was sometimes dinged for his in-game decisions, there were still plenty of moments he got it right. And no one ever said he did not excel in the clubhouse, where he was offered no shortage of challenges over the years with the personalities of Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Hanley Ramirez and Brian Wilson.

He should have received a medal for deftly handling the digressions of those varied temperaments.

“Nothing was ever done in a group setting,” catcher A.J. Ellis said. “It was always one on one, which is the way I think it should be done. Nobody wants to be embarrassed or called out in front of teammates. He would have a coach grab someone and have them come to his office. He’d hash it out there and have a conversation.”

Players respected his demeanor and how he handled the clubhouse’s big personalities. Soon, even Andrew Friedman, leader of the analytics-driven new front office, grew to admire how he handled the clubhouse.

“I think he had a good sense of when to approach players, not just when to do it, if to do it all,” General Manager Farhan Zaidi said. “But also the timing, when to let things calm down for a day or two before approaching guys. Knowing when to push buttons and when to let things go.

“Being the manager of a major league baseball team, a lot of times people focus on the Xs and Os, but the players are people and individuals. Just like in any business, when you’re a manager you have to know how to manage egos and personalities. And I think that’s a big part of this job.”

By most accounts, Mattingly was receptive to the new focus on data. This season more than ever, you saw the front-office impact in his lineups and defensive shifts. Mattingly claimed he welcomed the input.

But his last lineup in the fateful Game 5 of the division series against the Mets featured struggling Joc Pederson in center field and injured Yasmani Grandal at catcher, and the thought persisted that the lineup was not always his creation.

His third consecutive trip to the playoffs ended shy of the Dodgers’ only real goal. Regardless whether it’s been 27 years, for the Dodgers it’s the World Series or disappointment. This team’s expectations only swelled with its record payroll.

And when the Dodgers fell short again, the assumption for many was that Mattingly was a too easy fall guy for a front office that had inherited him as manager.

Maybe behind all that verbal tap dancing Thursday they had it right. Maybe his leaving really is best for all.

“I’m confident in two things,” Ellis said. “One is that Andrew and Farhan and Josh [Brynes, the vice president of baseball operations] are going to find a great manager. And I’m also confident that Don Mattingly is going to be a World Series champion manager.”

sports@latimes.com