GLENDALE, Arizona—Don Mattingly's last season as a player with the Yankees immediately preceded Joe Torre's first season as their manager. Thus, Mattingly played in an era when George Steinbrenner often changed managers on a whim.
In many regards, Mattingly's career span from 1982 to 1995 was the perfect time to learn all about managers. The roll call of skippers during Mattingly's career was a long one, starting with Clyde King and including Billy Martin, Yogi Berra, Lou Piniella, Dallas Green, Bucky Dent, Stump Merrill (or as Joe Morgan was so fond of calling him, Merrill Stump), and Buck Showalter.
"When I was a young player, I never gave managing a thought, but it was something I really started to get interested in as my career went on," Mattingly said. "The last few years, in particular, I'd start taking a closer look at the teams we were playing and how the manager handled those teams, what seemed to work and what didn't. I also played for a lot of managers and that turned out to be a great experience, in retrospect, because they did some things I liked and others I didn't."
Mattingly is now getting a chance to start putting those observations to work in his first season as the Dodgers' manager. He was elevated from hitting coach at the end of last season when Torre retired. Mattingly will make his regular-season debut March 31 when the Dodgers host the defending World Series champion Giants.
Mattingly is one of 12 managers who will be beginning his first full season with a new team. The others are the Diamondbacks' Kirk Gibson, the Braves' Fredi Gonzalez, the Orioles' Showalter, the Cubs' Mike Quade, the Marlins' Edwin Rodriguez, the Royals' Ned Yost, the Brewers' Ron Roenicke, the Mets' Terry Collins, the Pirates' Clint Hurdle, the Mariners' Eric Wedge and the Blue Jays' John Farrell.
While Gibson and Showalter are well known, neither has Mattingly's profile. He was the 1985 American League Most Valuable Player, won nine Gold Gloves and three Silver Sluggers, and was selected to play in six All-Star Games. Beyond those accolades, he was Donnie Baseball, the face of the Yankees franchise throughout most of his 14 seasons.
However, Mattingly hopes the Dodgers' 2011 season won't be about him. Though he was a huge fan favorite and one of the most-publicized players of his era, Mattingly still retains the sensibilities of his hometown of Evansville, Indiana. He prefers to just blend in.
"I'm excited about managing," Mattingly said. "It's something I've hoped to do for quite a while now. But it's really not about me. It's about the players. I'm just here to help get them ready and give them guidance. They are the guys who go out on the field and get the job done. I'm just here to oversee things."
The knock on Mattingly is that he had never managed at any level until last October and November in the Arizona Fall League. He once ran out of pitchers in an AFL game, forcing it to be stopped in the eighth inning. Also, while serving as acting manager after Torre and bench coach Bob Schaffer were thrown out of a game last August against the Giants, Mattingly made the mistake of walking away from the mound during a visit, then returning, which forced him to remove the pitcher from the game.
Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti is convinced Mattingly is the right man for the job, and hired Royals manager Trey Hillman as bench coach to assist him. However, the Dodgers also elevated Tim Wallach from Triple-A manager to third base coach over the winter, and he is a ready-made replacement if Mattingly bombs.
"I'm going to make some mistakes this season, because no manager is perfect," Mattingly said. "I do feel I'm very prepared for the job, though. I spent a long time coaching under Joe Torre, one of the greatest managers in the history of the game. I learned a lot about managing from him."
The Dodgers slipped to 80-82 last season after winning the National League West the previous two years. Colletti has also been restricted financially because of the ongoing divorce case between owners Frank and Jamie McCourt. Thus, the Dodgers will make do with a $104 million payroll, a virtual shoestring budget for a team in such a big market.
Yet Mattingly believes the Dodgers have enough to get back to the top in the NL West, even though the Giants won the World Series last year. Mattingly is excited that left-hander Ted Lilly and right-hander Hiroki Kuroda were retained as free agents. They will be joined in the rotation by Jon Garland, another free agent, once he recovers from a strained oblique muscle. That trio will provide backup to left-hander Clayton Kershaw and right-hander Chad Billingsley.
Mattingly also feels workhorse Matt Guerrier, another key free agent acquisition, will strengthen the bullpen and that right-hander Blake Hawksworth, acquired from the Cardinals in an off-season trade, could be the bullpen's big surprise this season.
However, the Dodgers have made no major changes to a lineup that was just 11th in the NL and 21st in the majors with an average of 4.12 runs scored a game last season. That helped lead to a per-game run differential of -0.15, which ranked 10th in the league and 20th overall. The Dodgers have since subbed in Rod Barajas for Russell Martin at catcher and Juan Uribe for Ryan Theriot at second base, and hope that a Jay Gibbons/Marcus Thames platoon can make up for the loss of Manny Ramirez in left field.
"We still have some very good players in our lineup who played a major role in getting us to the National League Championship Series in back-to-back years and are just reaching the primes of their careers," Mattingly said, referring to first baseman James Loney, center fielder Matt Kemp, and right fielder Andre Ethier. "We have the pieces in place here to have a contending ballclub. I feel very fortunate to step into a situation as a first-time manager where we have this kind of talent and are ready to win. I'm excited about getting going."
Rumors and Rumblings:
The Rangers are willing to move closer Neftali Feliz into the starting rotation but are hesitant to move Mark Lowe or Alexi Ogando into the closer role this late in spring training. Feliz most likely will remain the closer this season and transition into the rotation next spring unless the Rangers can trade for someone like the Padres' Heath Bell or the Cubs' Carlos Marmol between now and Opening Day. … The Giants are hedging on sending prospect Brandon Belt to Triple-A and now would at least consider opening the season with him at first base and Aubrey Huff in left field. They are also more than willing to deal displaced center fielder Aaron Rowand, but are getting more trade interest in outfielder Nate Schierholtz, who is out of minor-league options. … Reliever Jason Isringhausen plans to retire if he does not make the Mets' Opening Day roster.
White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has made it clear to GM Ken Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen that they need a fast start to the season in order to spark ticket sales and draw the 2.6 million fans he says are necessary for the club to break even this year. … Lastings Milledge has come back from the oblivion of being non-tendered by the Pirates last November to win a reserve outfield job with the White Sox, prompting one scout to say: "It looks like getting cut by the Pirates really woke him up, because he's finally looking like the player everyone thought he was going to be when he came up to the major leagues. He's swinging the bat with a purpose and just generally playing harder." … The Mariners have reversed course and are likely to have rookie right-hander Michael Pineda in their season-opening rotation now that left-hander Nate Robertson has undergone elbow surgery. It also appears that the Mariners will open the season with Milton Bradley in left field instead of Michael Saunders. … John Mayberry Jr. has pulled ahead of Ben Francisco in the competition to be the Phillies' Opening Day right fielder as rookie Dominic Brown recovers from his broken hand.
Journeyman Jack Hannahan has the inside track to start at third base for the Indians on Opening Day now that Jason Donald will begin the season on the disabled list with a broken hand. … After watching right-hander Justin Masterson on multiple occasions this spring, one scout believes the Indians would be better served using him in relief: "He doesn't have the consistent breaking ball to use against left-handers, and he can't overcome that multiple times through the order." … Look for Juan Gutierrez to begin the season as the Diamondbacks closer if J.J. Putz goes on the DL with a stiff neck. … Prospect Brett Lawrie has shown enough this spring that the Blue Jays are considering having him start the season as their third baseman, with Jose Bautista staying in right field.