Don Mattingly holds Dodgers together despite on-field struggles

It is the sturdiest room in a sagging stadium, filled with the calmest voice in a storm of a season.

Don Mattingly’s office is part Dodgers museum, part principal’s office, all hardball.

The walls are filled with black and white Brooklyn Dodgers photos, his personal photos, hung at his insistence, the lifetime New York Yankee intentionally surrounded by Jackie and Campy and Duke.

“This office is not about any individual, it’s about this organization, I don’t want anybody to ever forget that,” Mattingly said.

His desk is filled with motivational books and two large plastic bottles. One is marked “James Loney Fly To Left Fund.” The other is marked “James Loney Line Drive Fund.”


Every time Loney hits a fly ball to left field — usually a sure out for the left-handed hitter — he owes Mattingly five bucks. Every time he hits a line drive, Mattingly drops five bucks in the other bottle.

“Just like my players, I’m trying everything,” Mattingly said with a smile.

I didn’t think I would like Mattingly as a manager, but I do.

His debut record stinks, his long-term future under new ownership is uncertain, he has made rookie decisions and protected questionable players.

But I like Mattingly as a manager because, in a season of emptiness, he brings presence.

His team can’t win, but he has yet to let them quit. His owner acts like a fool, but the players do not. The entire operation has been dragged through a sewer, yet Mattingly has somehow kept the team above it all.

I like Mattingly not because of what has happened, but because of what has not happened. There has been no selfish player rebellion, no distracting player fights, no clubhouse turmoil amid perhaps the most tumultuous summer in Dodgers history.

“We’re teetering,” Mattingly said. “But I’m proud that guys continue to get ready to play and give us their best effort.”

The games are hard to watch. The results are hard to take. Mattingly wakes up in the middle of some nights at his South Bay home and walks the floor. The lineup is filled with injuries, the bullpen is filled with oddities, the team can’t hit, there’s no money to acquire anybody decent, and on nights when Clayton Kershaw doesn’t pitch, there’s not much chance for a win.

Yet, you rarely see the sort of fundamental breakdowns that were evident under Joe Torre. You never hear of veterans belittling kids like they did under Grady Little. It might be the worst year ever to be a Dodger, yet Mattingly is still selling this crazy view of what it means to be a Dodger.

“We stress only one thing — there’s one way to play the game and that’s the right way, all the time, 10 games back or 10 ahead,” Mattingly said. “We want to set a standard, and, even though right now it’s not good enough to get wins, one day it will be.”

Of course, when the Dodgers roster finally gets good enough, will Mattingly be good enough? That will be the question eventually faced by the team’s future owners after next season. Is he holding this smoking wreckage together just long enough to get dragged out of the driver’s seat when the new engine finally arrives?

Right now, it would be a difficult call, because, while I love the way Mattingly has managed this crisis, I still have no idea whether he can manage championship baseball, and neither does anybody else.

“Donnie hasn’t even had one easy week, so it’s really tough to judge,” said Ned Colletti, Dodgers general manager. “But if the effort has been there, and I attribute that to him and his staff.”

If Mattingly were being graded, that grade would be an incomplete. He still struggles with the fast pace of a National League game. He still has nights like Friday, when he pulled reliever Kenley Jansen at the start of the ninth inning after Jansen had struck out four consecutive batters, only to watch the next three pitchers combine to set up Jerry Hairston Jr.'s grand slam.

“You do what you think is right, but sometimes you beat yourself up over it,” Mattingly said. “There’s things I’ve done this year where I’ve later been like, ‘What am I doing? I can’t do that.”

One of those things happened July 4 in the sixth inning against the New York Mets, when Mattingly allowed right-hander Rubby De La Rosa to pitch to left-hander Daniel Murphy with right-handed Jason Bay on deck. Murphy’s double gave the Mets a lead they never lost.

Mattingly was so upset with that decision, he called Colletti later that night to talk about it. He’s not only unafraid to admit mistakes, but he’s also willing to discuss them with his boss, and how can you fault a rookie for that?

“I’ve been embarrassed sometimes, but I’ve been embarrassed on the field as a player,” Mattingly said. “You learn quick and you move on.”

He is learning quickly, painfully, enduring what is surely one of the most doomed managerial debuts in recent history. Yet, he is doing it with the sort of grace and dignity that the Dodgers will need moving forward.

“I love what I’m doing. I love the challenge of what I’m doing,” he said. “I don’t like the losing, but I have to be the guy that sees where we’re going.”

Where he goes every morning is on an hour-long walk on the beach, down by the water, barefoot and anonymous, his feet covered in sticky sand yet, as always, his mind on the gorgeous blue.

“Sometimes I’ll just jump in the water, and it’s been really, really cold,” he said . “But I’m telling you, it’s warming up a bit. I can just feel it.”