There is not one player on the entire Los Angeles Dodgers roster that can make a claim to having been better than an in-his-prime Don Mattingly.
Even those who have superstar potential like Matt Kemp can only hope to be mentioned in the same breath with Mattingly.
That’s how great he was; how dangerous he was. In fact, you can make the Koufax/Puckett argument for Mattingly’s Hall of Fame candidacy. Both Sandy Koufax and Kirby Puckett had their careers derailed by injuries. Koufax’s arthritic elbow forced him from the game at the height of his powers at age 30; Puckett had glaucoma and was done at 35.
They’re in the Hall of Fame because of Koufax’s dominance over a 5-year period and Puckett’s combination of greatness and what he “would” have achieved had he played another 3-5 years.
Because Mattingly was sabotaged by back problems, his production took a dive from its tremendous heights; but from 1984-1989 there was not a better player at the plate or in the field than Mattingly.
Trapped as an innocent bystander in the Steinbrennerean purgatory of the Yankees in the 1980s, he never got the chance to show his wares on the big stage.
As the Yankees turmoil mounted and the revolving door of teammates and managers spun and spun and spun, Mattingly was at the center of the clubhouse—the hapless victim of circumstance—as things came apart.
It was only when he was a mere shell of his former self; when those back injuries limited him to being good as opposed to great and robbed him of his power and George Steinbrenner was suspended that the foundation of the late-90s championship teams was able to break ground under Gene Michael and Buck Showalter.
In a cruel irony, Mattingly retired the year before the Yankees 1996 championship.
Passed over for the manager’s job following Joe Torre’s ouster, he left and joined Torre with the Dodgers. It can be said—reasonably—that Joe Girardi was the wiser and safer choice because of his experience; but it can’t be discounted that had GM Brian Cashman chosen Mattingly as his manager, he would never have been able to fire him.
No GM wants a manager he can’t fire.
Now that he’s the manager of the Dodgers, we’ll see whether the lack of experience will be mitigated by his status as a megastar player who’s seen it all; done it all; experienced it all. Mattingly can look at the swirling drama of the McCourts’ divorce, shrug and say, “You wanna know about nuts? I’ll tell you about nuts.”
How does this translate to managerial success?
For every player who’s willing to play as hard as possible and respect his manager and coaching staff, there are those who try to exert their perceived authority and use a large contract and big numbers to bully their “bosses”. We saw it with Hanley Ramirez and Fredi Gonzalez last year.
After years of tolerating and dancing around Ramirez’s diva-like behaviors due to the player’s skills and close relationship with owner Jeffrey Loria, Gonzalez punished Ramirez for an egregious lack of hustle and engaged in a public spitting contest with his star player. In the short-term, Gonzalez was supported by the players, contemporaries and public opinion; eventually he was fired in no small part because of Ramirez. He landed on his feet with the Braves with his self-respect intact.
The attitude of certain star players was exemplified in Ramirez essentially saying, “Who’s he to say anything to me? He never played in the big leagues.”
Well, Mattingly not only played in the big leagues, but he was the MVP in 1985 and, as said earlier, was better than anyone on the Dodgers roster. In what would be an unsaid retort, Mattingly could put forth the aura of, “I was better than each and every one of you, so don’t come at me with that ‘who are you?’ horse(bleep).”
He wouldn’t say it because it’s not in his personality; but it helps that he wouldn’t have to say it.
If you saw Kemp’s hustle on Friday night in which he went from first to third on a hit-and-run ground out, it’s a good sign for the Dodgers that they’re playing hard and smart—the enigmatic and hard-headed Kemp in particular.
What people fail to understand when selecting a manager is that strategy is sometimes a small part of him doing his job; it’s not just about “I’m the manager, do what you’re told.”
As was shown with Ramirez, a star doesn’t have to exert much effort (literally and figuratively) to get the manager fired.
Controlling the players and the clubhouse can be far more important than the negligible lineup choices, pitching changes and whom to pinch hit—many of the results of said maneuvers are based on luck.
Mattingly knows what it’s like to be a superstar player and doesn’t have the peacock ego and rampant insecurity to make sure everyone knows he’s in charge by repeatedly saying it; he’ll be able to defer to pitching coach Rick Honeycutt on what to do with the arms; to ask coaches Trey Hillman, Davey Lopes and Tim Wallach (whom he beat out for the job) what they think without being threatened.
He’ll make his mistakes, but the players not wanting to let Donnie down will overcome them.
And he’s accustomed to lunacy.
That’s why he’s going to make it as a manager.
Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available.
I published a full excerpt of my book here.