The Dodgers’ management made its call on Don Mattingly last year. The powers that be loved how he ran the clubhouse. They did not love how he ran a game. So they fired his handpicked bench coach, Trey Hillman, and replaced him with Tim Wallach.
The Dodgers also gave Mattingly a contract extension. From owner Mark Walter to president Stan Kasten to general manager Ned Colletti, the refrain was similar, even amid the Dodgers’ fall into last place through the first half of last season: The players love and respect Mattingly, and they play hard for him.
That is what has made the last couple of weeks in Dodger Land so puzzling. Mattingly and Andre Ethier got into an argument in the dugout. So did Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig. Hanley Ramirez and Kenley Jansen got into an argument on the field, before a game.
Mattingly told an unhappy Kemp to let him know when he felt he could play left field, so Kemp sat for five days. Carl Crawford said this: “They tell us one thing, and something else happens. We can’t go by what they say.”
Mattingly ripped into his team before and after a game, first saying the Dodgers were not “that collective group, fighting and pulling in one direction without any concept of this guy, that guy, this guy, that guy,” then saying he was “tired of answering questions” and telling reporters to go ask the players to explain the consistent inconsistency.
So the reporters asked Kemp.
“He didn’t say come ask Matt, did he?” Kemp shot back.
The Dodgers are not out of anything. The San Francisco Giants might have the best record in baseball, but they are not invincible, not with Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Lincecum holding down rotation spots. And the Dodgers are right there for a wild card, better positioned than any other club in baseball for a one-game playoff, given that they could fight to Game 162 and still have Clayton Kershaw or Zack Greinke or Hyun-jin Ryu or Josh Beckett available on regular rest.
The talent is there. A manager sometimes tries to rally his talent by sending a message through the media, but Mattingly says what might have been perceived as strategic rants were simply honest answers.
“I really don’t want to try to manipulate the media in any way,” Mattingly said in a one-on-one interview monitored by a team public relations staffer. “I just want to be myself. On that day, I felt we weren’t as good as we could be.”
He had not gone to work that day, he said, planning to plant the seed of constructive public criticism.
“No,” he said, “no, no, no, no, no, no. For me, it’s something that gets on my mind. It may have been in there awhile, crawling around. It happens to come out that day. Who knows if it’s frustration, from things that haven’t been going as well as you’d like? Who knows where it comes out?
“You try to stay away from controversy, to be honest with you. You’d like to not have turmoil with your club, if you can avoid it. I’m obviously not trying to create it, but sometimes I guess what you say does.”
It does if it raises the issue of whether Mattingly can control his clubhouse, perceived to be high among his skills.
“I don’t think you can control it,” Mattingly said. “You don’t try to control it.”
We do not see everything, of course. The cameras do not follow players everywhere, and the clubhouse closes to reporters three hours before a home game.
“The same things were going on last year,” Mattingly said. “It’s no different this year than last year. There has never been a team that I’ve played on where everybody is happy. You’re not going to have 25 happy guys. There has probably never been a team where some guys aren’t arguing and bickering back and forth. So I think that’s just part of being like a family.”
He later repeated, for emphasis: “I don’t look at this year as being a whole lot different than last year.”
The issue that was expected to surface last year — how do the Dodgers resolve their surplus of outfielders? — has risen with a vengeance this year. No longer are the Dodgers trying to fit four square outfield pegs into three round holes. Now there are six pegs, with the emergence of Scott Van Slyke to complement Puig, Crawford, Ethier and Kemp, and with top prospect Joc Pederson in the triple-A waiting room.
Crawford, Ethier and Kemp are accustomed to playing every day, and it is clear none of those players is comfortable with the situation. The Dodgers say they are prudent, given the recent injury histories of Crawford and Kemp.
Is Mattingly comfortable enough to go to his bosses and say that the situation needs to be resolved, that talented veteran players need to play, somewhere, or the clubhouse discontent might be difficult to contain?
“There are discussions that have been going on for a while now,” Mattingly said, not offering specifics.
“I think you can rest assured that everybody is trying to do this the best they possibly can. That said, there are lots of things that are talked about. It’s not me who is going to go, ‘Hey, we have got to do this.’ We all talk back and forth. There are discussions that go on — not only yesterday, or a month ago, or last winter — all those things are part of wanting to put the best team out there possible and doing it the best you possibly can.”
Whatever the specifics, is there an understanding that the situation cannot linger indefinitely?
“There are some things that aren’t easy, or aren’t perfect, right now,” Mattingly said, “but to me we’re no different than a lot of other clubs.
“Is this the exact club you want? I don’t know. You want everybody to fit in their spots and know their roles — if you’re platooning a guy, once that gets in place, guys know what day they’re playing and all that stuff. You do the best you can.”
Mike Scioscia played for the Dodgers for 13 years and for no other team. But his last year as a player was 1992, and the newest generation of Southern California baseball fans has known him only as manager of the Angels. He has worn the halo for 15 years.
Mattingly played for the New York Yankees for 14 years and for no other team. His last year as a player was 1995. He would like to be known as a Dodger.
“I look at myself like that already,” he said.
If he is going to have Scioscia’s staying power, he is going to have to win the World Series.
Scioscia did, in his third year. This is Mattingly’s fourth year, his first with a record payroll.
“I know it is what the organization wants,” Mattingly said. “I know it’s what the fans want. That’s what everybody wants — everybody in L.A., at least the ones that aren’t in Orange County.”
He laughed, heartily. His team had won the previous night. It was a good day to wake up as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles.