MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Fresh challenge awaits Mattingly this spring

Justice: Fresh challenge awaits Mattingly this spring

Now comes the hard part for the Los Angeles Dodgers. That's the part where they attempt to turn all that talent and all those personalties and large egos into a cohesive, selfless, passionate baseball team.

Just to be clear, that means you, Donnie Baseball.

Is Don Mattingly the right man for the job? In two seasons, he has passed every challenge with flying colors. His players rave about his poise, honesty and preparation.

There's also a likability factor that can't be underestimated. To know Mattingly is to like him, and in the course of a nine-month season, it's important that the players buy what the manager is selling.

Still, Mattingly's challenge has gone from figuring out how to cover up weaknesses to managing people. That is, keeping them focused and hungry and together. That's a challenge for every manager, but it's especially true for a club that has been constructed largely of players from other organizations.

The Dodgers will begin Spring Training with very little in common, with many players not really knowing their teammates. Mattingly will attempt to convince them that they're all Dodgers, all part of a great franchise with a great history of doing things right.

And there's money. At last count, the Dodgers will have 10 players making at least $11 million in 2013. Can Mattingly reach them?

In a larger sense, that's what managing is in this era. Managers have all kinds of computerized help with lineups, defensive alignments and bullpen matchups if they're willing to take advantage of them.

No computer can ever substitute for the human touch of getting a group of men to play as one and to believe in one another and to keep their cool in good times and bad.

This is where men like Jim Leyland and Bruce Bochy perform so brilliantly. They preach the gospel of team, challenge players in good times, encourage them in bad.

Their players know their manager has their back. They know they're honest with both good news and bad and that every decision they make is in the best interest of the team, or at least what they believe to be in the best interest of the team.

For instance, on the first day of Spring Training, Joe Maddon asks only two things of the Tampa Bay Rays:

• Run hard to first base.

• Play defense.

In the end, everything that makes up a good baseball team flows from those two things.

Tony La Russa was brilliant at challenging his players, imploring them to play the season one inning at a time, to make it simple. That is, execute the pitch, field the ground ball, get the runner home.

"Respect the game," he would say over and over. If that sounds vague, his players knew otherwise.

When a young Cardinals player made a boneheaded defensive miscue a couple of years ago, he entered the dugout after the inning and was met, in order, by coach Jose Oquendo, first baseman Albert Pujols and La Russa.

All of them explained what he'd done wrong and why it wasn't acceptable.

"You can't ignore it," La Russa said. "You can't beat the guy up, but you can't pretend it's acceptable, either."

During last Fall's American League Championship Series, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski marveled at the work of Leyland.

"The job of a manager is so enormous," said. "Think about this: The best teams are both relaxed and aggressive. How does that happen? It happens because the manager sets the right tone and gets guys to believe in the team.

There's no reason to think Mattingly will be anything less than terrific at managing these new Dodgers. Has any manager handled his first two seasons better than Donnie Baseball? He has proven himself in a dozen important ways. He's a terrific communicator. He's consistent, both with his dugout demeanor and his lineup machinations. His players show up everyday know what's expected of them.

Fans tend to think of managers being successful if they know when to send one guy up to pinch-hit for another. Or if he manages the bullpen to get results and keep arms fresh enough to still be effective in October and November.

Those things are important, but it's also about people, about being honest with them and letting them know what is expected of them.

That's more difficult when so many of the players make far more money than the manager. But Mattingly's demeanor might just be perfect for personalities as different as those of Hanley Ramirez and Josh Beckett and Andre Ethier.

When Ramirez arrived with a questionable reputation as a teammate last summer, Mattingly never wavered.

"I don't judge someone by what others say," he said. "We have a great environment for baseball here. We believe in one another."

Mattingly is big on shutting out the noise. So if the media has certain expectations for the Dodgers, if the talk shows light up when things go bad, Mattingly wants his guys to know it's only about them, nothing else, about playing and having fun.

His peers will have no sympathy for a manager who has a roster filled with talent. And if Mattingly's first two years are any indication, the Dodgers just might enjoy the ride.

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.