Manager's attitude made him well-respected as he proved himself during his time with Dodgers
By Richard Justice
When the Los Angeles Dodgers acquired Hanley Ramirez shortly before the 2012 non-waiver Trade Deadline, he didn't have the best of reputations as a teammate. Don Mattingly believed that was irrelevant.
"Hanley has a clean slate here," Mattingly said. "He understands that."
If you didn't know one other thing about Mattingly's five seasons as Dodgers manager, this attitude cuts to the heart of things.
As the Dodgers and Mattingly announce they're parting ways, he leaves a legacy as both a good man and a good manager. Baseball has been better every single day he has worn a Major League uniform, and if he wants to manage again, there are sure to be opportunities.
Mattingly's strength was that his players liked and respected him and wanted to please him. Having been a six-time All-Star during 14 seasons with the Yankees, he understood what players needed from a manager and how best to shape a winning environment.
The Dodgers played hard for Mattingly and finished first in the National League West the past three seasons. They didn't have much postseason success, and while that disappointment can't be traced to the manager's office, it's a bottom-line business. With Andrew Friedman taking over baseball operations and inheriting Mattingly after last season, this divorce probably was inevitable.
The things Mattingly did well cut to the heart of what separates good managers from the others. He succeeded, in part, because of his ability to build strong relationships with his players -- with Clayton Kershaw, A.J. Ellis, Matt Kemp (before he was traded last offseason) and others.
When the Dodgers found themselves with four starting outfielders a couple of years ago, Mattingly did the only thing he knew how to do. He confronted the issue directly by calling the four into his office and telling them they might not be happy with their playing time and that they needed to be patient while he figured things out.
Mattingly's critics -- and he had plenty -- did not like the way he managed his bullpen. At least in his early days, they thought he bunted too much and needlessly double-switched some of his best players out of games.
Guess what Donnie Baseball said about that?
"I would think we're all learning and growing. I would like to think I got better the longer I managed. I'd be pretty disappointed if that wasn't the case."
Here's the larger point: Mattingly had a clubhouse with large personalities playing on a large, bright stage.
His first responsibility was to make the room work -- that is, to get a cohesive effort from the players and to convince them to buy into a belief system in which whatever is good for the whole team is also good for the individual.
This is the essence of leadership. If Mattingly had been unable to do that, none of the other stuff -- pitching changes, bunting, etc. would have mattered. And this is the part he did very well. Mattingly was tested at times, most notably by Yasiel Puig, who is enormously talented but also occasionally reckless and immature.
Mattingly walked a fine line, nudging Puig toward being a good teammate and a more responsible player. He had to do it gently for fear of losing the guy. In a clubhouse with that kind of mix, it's difficult to imagine anyone doing a better job than Mattingly.
Remember when he was promoted from bench coach to manager five years ago? He had never managed at any level, and when he'd filled in for Joe Torre, he seemed occasionally over his head.
Those things aren't even issues anymore. Mattingly was plenty good at what he did. Despite a third straight division championship, the Dodgers were an imperfect team -- a rotation weakened by injuries, a lineup with holes, a bullpen that had trouble bridging the innings between the starters and closer Kenley Jansen.
And when ownership invests close to $300 million in a roster, when there's a new man in charge of baseball operations and when there's postseason disappointment, change is inevitable.
As the Dodgers begin the search for a new manager, Mattingly could have several options to consider. He could end up with the Marlins or maybe even the Nationals. He could rejoin the Yankees in some capacity.
Regardless of where he goes, he does so with the knowledge that he did a good job for the Dodgers, that he proved himself a competent big league manager and that he built on a baseball legacy that was already a good one.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.