The Dodgers and Keeping Mattingly

Basketball, Books, Games, History, Hockey, Management, Media, Players, Playoffs, World Series

The Dodgers have yet to make it official, but reports state that the club is planning to bring Don Mattingly back as manager in 2014. In what would normally be an automatic move for a manager whose team won the division and a playoff series, it was in doubt as to whether Mattingly was going to return due to strategies that even have some players complaining about them. If the team goes on to win the World Series, obviously they won’t make a change. If they make it to the World Series, it’s exceedingly difficult to fire the manager no matter how poor an on-field job he’s perceived to have done. But if they lose this NLCS (they’re currently trailing 3 games to 2), are they right to look at their payroll, roster and expectations and say another manager would be a better option?

In sports, it’s not unprecedented for a manager to be fired even after he had what could only be described as a “successful” season or run. Winning a championship doesn’t necessarily imply managerial excellence. Bob Brenly won a World Series with the Diamondbacks, won 98 games and a division title the next season and hasn’t gotten close to getting another managerial job since because he’s not viewed as a good manager. Cito Gaston won two World Series with the Blue Jays, was fired four years later and didn’t get another managing job until the Blue Jays rehired him.

Dodgers part owner Magic Johnson is no stranger to coaching controversies and getting the boss fired if he didn’t agree with his philosophy. In the 1979-1980 NBA season, Paul Westhead won an NBA championship for the Lakers with the rookie Johnson leading the way. They won 54 games in 1980-81 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. In 1981-82, the team was 7-4 when Johnson – unhappy with the strategies employed by Westhead – helped usher him out the door to be replaced by Pat Riley. The Lakers won another title that year. If the players are complaining, the one person in the Dodgers organization who’ll be receptive is Johnson.

As for GM Ned Colletti and CEO Stan Kasten, they’re experienced baseball men who are well aware of Mattingly’s pluses and minuses. If they equate his ability to keep the players playing hard for him and that the ship didn’t sink while the team was struggling early in the summer as more important than negligible strategic choices, then they should keep Mattingly. If they want someone with a better strategic resume, a more iron-fisted disciplinarian style to rein in Yasiel Puig and who will command respect in the clubhouse, perhaps they should consider bringing back the manager who should never have been fired from the Dodgers in the first place, Jim Tracy. Or they could hire Tony LaRussa, Lou Piniella, Dusty Baker or anyone who has more experience than Mattingly does and they’ll know what they’re getting with the star power the Dodgers want.

While hockey is run far differently than any other sport with coaches often fired almost immediately after the season starts as happened with the Flyers and Peter Laviolette last week, there might be a lesson the Dodgers can take from Devils boss Lou Lamoriello.

Lamoriello is entrenched in his job and built the Devils up from nothing to become one of the dominant teams in hockey for a vast portion of his tenure. While accumulating three Stanley Cups and two other finals appearances, he’s hired, fired and rehired coaches 19 times, twice taking the job himself. He has fired coaches right before the playoffs have started and fired coaches who won Stanley Cups for him. If he believes a change is needed, he makes that change. He doesn’t give a reason because he doesn’t feel as if he needs to give a reason and it’s not due to a bloated ego and public persona as has been seen in baseball with the managerial changes made by Athletics GM Billy Beane.

Beane’s managerial changes were based on him and the image that was cultivated through the creative non-fiction of Moneyball that: A) the manager doesn’t matter; and B) he’s an all-knowing, unassailable genius for whom every move is a testament to ingenuity.

He pushed Art Howe out the door in favor of Ken Macha. Macha got the Athletics further than any of Beane’s other managers with an ALCS appearance in 2006 and Beane fired him too. He hired his “best friend” Bob Geren and kept him on through years and years of win totals in the mid-70s, then only fired him because of the attention that his job status was receiving – not because he’d done a poor job. He hired a highly qualified manager who knows how to run his club on and off the field in Bob Melvin and, lo and behold, Beane’s genius returned with back-to-back division titles. Melvin has lost in the first round in those two division-winning seasons and hasn’t been fired. Yet.

There’s a difference. Lamoriello hires and fires for a team reason. Beane did it to shield himself. Lamoriello gets away with it because of the hardware. Beane gets away with it because of a book.

So what’s it to be with the Dodgers? Will Colletti’s loyalty, Kasten’s slow trigger or Magic’s understanding of player concerns win out? They could exercise Mattingly’s contract for 2014 with the intention of making a change if they team gets off to another slow start. Or they could just fire him and bring in a new manager.

Worrying about how it’s going to “look” is a mistake. If they don’t trust Mattingly as manager, then he shouldn’t be the manager. If they’re willing to accept his strategic fumblings because the players overcame adversity, then they should keep him. The best interests of the club are more important and need to take precedence. Make the commitment to Mattingly with all his baggage or make him disappear. It’s one or the other.




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The Dodgers Were Flawed To Begin With

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Injuries have been a significant factor for the Dodgers. Their starting rotation “depth” with which they entered spring training holding eight starters has seen one after another eliminated. Aaron Harang was traded to the Rockies who subsequently sent him to the Mariners where he’s pitched poorly. Chris Capuano is on the disabled list with a strained calf. Chad Billingsley is out for the year with Tommy John surgery. Ted Lilly is out with a ribcage strain. Zack Greinke has a broken collarbone. All of a sudden they’re down to three bona fide starting pitchers: Clayton Kershaw, Josh Beckett and Hyun-jin Ryu.

As for the lineup, Hanley Ramirez was on the disabled list with a thumb injury, came back sooner than expected and strained a hamstring. Mark Ellis has a strained quadriceps, Adrian Gonzalez has a strained neck. On the bright side, Carl Crawford is enjoying a renaissance now that he’s healthy and out of Boston, not necessarily in that order.

Don Mattingly’s job status as manager is being called into question because he’s in the final guaranteed year of his contract.

There are plenty of excuses but none approach an explanation for the crux of the problem: they were overrated by those with stars in their eyes. The injuries have affected them to be sure, but at the start of the season they didn’t have a legitimate starting third baseman and have been playing Luis Cruz who has a pitcher-like 6 hits in 71 plate appearances; they overspent to keep Brandon League as their closer and he hasn’t been good because—here’s a flash—he isn’t good. They did a lot of “stuff” over the past year since the new ownership took over almost as a set of diametrically opposed maneuverings to what Frank McCourt did in his decried time as the owner. The key difference is that the new ownership received accolades for “restoring” the Dodgers’ star power and McCourt was reviled for his apparent graft and selfishness, but McCourt’s teams were competitive and made the playoffs four times in his nine years of ownership. A break here and a break there and they win a World Series or two.

This Dodgers team was thought to be better than it was because of star/spending power. Magic Johnson, Stan Kasten, moneymoneymoney. The 13-20 record is a result of injuries. They’re not this bad. But if they were completely healthy, they’re still not a championship team which, given the amount of cash they’ve laid out, is what should’ve been and apparently was expected judging by the reaction their slow start is receiving. The season is still salvageable. It’s only May, but their ceiling wasn’t that high to start and now with the stars they acquired to fill the seats instead filling the disabled list, there’s not much they can do other than wait and hope for health and the backs of the bubblegum cards to hold true. They have no other choice.

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