Donnie Baseball has the soul to manage

Donnie Baseball has the soul to manage

Donnie Baseball is who he is, and he is not Prago or Beverly Hills. Until family illness forced him to move across Evansville, Ind., last year, he lived in the same house he bought when he was playing in Triple-A. He still puts ketchup on his steaks, and the one thing Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, James Loney and all the Dodgers players know is that Don Mattingly will always have their backs, because that's who he is.

He's not from the Dodgers family tree, and he doesn't have a managerial resume. "I'll be all right," he says repeatedly, and general manager Ned Colletti goes further. "He'll be more than fine, he'll be great," says Colletti. "He's got all those special qualities that make leaders great. He oozes trust.

"When Joe agreed to come here, he wanted Donnie as his hitting coach. He wanted to pick his successor, and in that way Joe groomed Donnie. I look at it like this: Do you want two years experience managing in Triple-A, or do you want three years experience at the right hand of Joe Torre managing the Dodgers? This was a process that was decided long ago."

Torre admitted to those around him that he'd grown weary, not so much of managing, but the circumstances surrounding the Dodgers from the McCourt divorce to payroll cuts to some of the personalities that did not mesh to being four games under .500 three weeks into September. None of that will faze Mattingly, who in the craziest days of The Boss and Billy -- such as when Martin was so angry at Steinbrenner that he used Rick Rhoden to DH -- never stopped being optimistic.

He was convinced every spring that the Yankees would win. When he coached, he always found reasons to believe in young players. When most around him questioned Robinson Cano in his early days in New York, Donnie Baseball promised, "This guy can be a star." He believed in Melky Cabrera. He believes he will find the key to the ignition that will fire Matt Kemp to the level he can achieve, a task that had frustrated Torre. And Kemp knows it. He knows his manager will always have his back.

And Mattingly can go out back and school his former AAU hoop star at the free throw line. Twenty years ago, on a December Saturday night at what was Mattingly's restaurant/sports bar in Evansville, a guy from across the river in Kentucky challenged him to a free-throw-shooting contest at the free-throw line in the bar.

The Kentucky guy hit 18 of 21. Donnie Baseball made nine of his first 11, and when he bounced the ball for shot number 12, the bar manager -- Larry Bird's brother-in-law -- shut off the lights. In the dark, Mattingly buried his last 10 free throws. That's who he is.

Mattingly's career was cut short at 1,785 games because of a congenital back problem that plagued him all the way back to high school. Oh, he was a great three-sport athlete. As a quarterback, he'd roll out to the left and pass left-handed, roll out to the right and throw right-handed, but there were mornings when the back would lock up and he'd never make it to school.

The back ended his career the year before Torre took over, and hence he never won a ring. But one can argue he is the most popular Yankee who never earned a ring, and his presence meant so much to Paul O'Neill and kids like Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera that when they won the World Series for the second time in 1998 with a team that one could argue was the best since the 1930s, O'Neill said, "In many ways, this is still Don Mattingly's team."

No one really knows what will happen in the McCourt divorce, or what Colletti and Mattingly will or will not be able do this off-season. In present value, the payroll this season was closer to $83 million than the numbers that were thrown around, but $28 million in payroll is coming off the books, McCourt is going to try to figure a way to add another $10 million. They're trying to lock up Ted Lilly and Colletti has told other general managers that the only way he'd move Kemp or Ethier would be if the Dodgers were blown away. "Where do you find players like that?" Mattingly has said.

Players like Ethier, Kemp and Loney are foundation players, and moving them to the foundation level is Mattingly's job; the double switches and minutiae of the job will be easy, with the right coaches and staff around him.

He will never stop working. The way he hit for hours every day during the winter in the cage he built in his Evansville garage. He will never stop believing.

Players had better understand the only reason Donnie Baseball isn't in Cooperstown is the back. Check the 1985 MVP season, with the 86 extra-base hits, 145 RBIs and Gold Glove. Check the career totals of 588 walks, 444 strikeouts and 684 extra-base hits.

The players probably have figured out what I know. In July 2006, weeks after suffering a severe aneurysm, I was able to read some of my mail for the first time. Included in the pile was a FedEx envelope, from Evansville, Ind.

In it was a chain and a cross. "We hope this will help keep you alive and help you recover. Kim and Don," the note said. It was a chain and cross she had given him when they were in high school. It remains around my neck today. That's who Don Mattingly is, and always will be.

Peter Gammons is a columnist for and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.