It’s a baseball truism that managers are hired to be fired. (Sort of like newspaper columnists.) You can be everyone’s absolute darling one season and on the curb handing out résumés the next that read, “Won two historic World Series” (see: Terry Francona).
Which brings us to Don Mattingly, entering his second season at the helm as Dodgers manager.
All things — and expectations — considered, Mattingly had a strong debut. For someone who had never managed at any level, who was operating under a circus ownership and with a less-than-overpowering roster, he silenced critics with an even hand. His straightforward, open approach won over players, if not the media.
Wrote The Times’ Bill Plaschke on Monday: “All the stories about a guy who couldn’t fill out a lineup card or visit a mound have disappeared under a surprise season in which he nurtured the Cy Young Award winner, the true MVP, a plus-.500 record, and 25 wins in the Dodgers’ last 35 games.”
Mattingly, however, is in a difficult spot. He was hired by Frank McCourt, who is scheduled to select a new team owner by April 1. And new owners like to have their people in place. You know, so they can get the credit if the team wins and not the predecessor.
There is only one way to avoid the inevitable exit, and that’s to win. And winning with this current edition of the Dodgers will be a challenge.
For Mattingly to take this team to unexpected heights, he will have to continue to grow as a manager. Most of that is a natural process, but for Mattingly, it may require that he tap less into the genuine, nice-guy aspect of his personality and more into his highly competitive side.
Yeah, he absolutely needs to get over his infatuation with the bunt. But he also could benefit with being firmer with players who give less than full effort.
It shouldn’t take almost until the final month of the season to rid yourself of a Dioner Navarro, whose work ethic had lagged all year. He has to demand more and back it up from the get-go. If Andre Ethier is playing with a sore elbow, infielders had better be going deep in the outfield for the cutoff. Players had better run hard every time on the bases.
Generally, his team did play hard for him. It’s not like it’s a significant problem. But Mattingly can’t afford to let his congenial side ever interfere with his desire to win. Particularly on a team with such a small margin of error between being mediocre and competitive. A winning clubhouse culture starts with him.
A little more edge couldn’t hurt. Not suggesting some unnatural personality transformation, but Mattingly didn’t hit .307 over a 14-year career without having some fire to him. It’s OK to show it when necessary. A tad less patience could go a long way.