Commentary

Don Mattingly worked his way up

No one questions the work ethic of the next manager of the Dodgers

Updated: September 18, 2010, 2:34 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- For the past few months, Joe Torre seemed to know that it was time. Not necessarily for him to move on from baseball, but from the Dodgers.

There is very little Torre can say that will convince anyone he is ready to retire from baseball. Not when he still wakes up early in the mornings to get a workout in, or smiles as brightly as he did after pitcher Clayton Kershaw's masterful shutout the other night against the Giants.

Torre's heart and head are still very much in the game. All season, it seemed, he was looking for his team to give him a reason to stay another year.

But as the Dodgers' season has faded, and their young stars have dimmed, it became clear that this team was no longer the right team for him to manage.

[+] EnlargeDon Mattingly
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesDon Mattingly might not have a ton of experience, but he got to where he is by outworking everyone around him.

Torre is a big-city manager who is at his best when the lights are at their brightest. And for the past two years the lights have been sparkling at Dodger Stadium as the team reached two straight National League Championship Series.

But with an unsettled ownership situation, question marks surrounding everything from payroll to long-term vision, and an aging roster, the Dodgers no longer seem like a big-city, bright-lights kind of team.

In an era when the small-market, cost-conscious San Diego Padres Tampa Bay Rays and Cincinnati Reds can make playoff runs, going young does not have to be an admission -- or submission -- to lower standards.

It simply means, as Torre stated in the release announcing that hitting coach Don Mattingly would succeed him next season, that "It's time that the Dodgers had a new voice."

That new voice will be Mattingly's. And if you don't know much else about "Donnie Baseball" except that fans in New York love him, he messed up a lineup card in spring training, and he's swapped sideburns for a soul patch since coming to Los Angeles, there's a very good reason why.

The man is literally always working behind the scenes. Until Friday's news conference announcing him as the team's new manager, Mattingly has spent most of his time with the Dodgers away from the cameras.

Whether it's throwing batting practice, working with hitters in the batting cage before the game, or breaking down video in the clubhouse, Mattingly is your classic grinder.

He's up early every morning, running errands around his home in Manhattan Beach or getting a head start on the day's preparation.

He's up late at nights, studying video on his laptop in a hotel room or the charter flight to the next city.

"If you watch Donnie interact with people and watch his work ethic, and you didn't know who it was and then someone told you it was Don Mattingly, you'd be shocked that someone with his background and accomplishments had that kind of work ethic," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said.

Whether that work ethic and those instincts are enough to overcome Mattingly's inexperience and inevitable growing pains remains to be seen.

But everyone in the room where Friday's decision was made came away satisfied that Mattingly was ready for the challenge.

"I know people are going to question it, and that's understandable, but in my heart, I know I can do this," Mattingly said. "There's a feeling inside of me that says I'm ready."

Though Mattingly's head is usually down and his eyes are focused straight ahead, whenever he does have a minute to stop and chat, he's personable and engaging.

Earlier this season, I managed to stop him long enough to ask about Andre Ethier's progression as a hitter and the continued issues with controlling his emotions Ethier faced.

Mattingly stopped, took about two seconds to think, then launched into one of the most honest, detailed and insightful analyses I've heard in a long while.

"You just have make sure he doesn't disconnect," Mattingly said of Ethier. "Sometimes he gets so mad he'll disconnect and start throwing at-bats away. That's just his personality, that's the way he plays, that's fine. But you can't let him get so mad that he disconnects and starts throwing at-bats away.

"He's changed his approach a hair, just a little bit to be more aggressive, more willing to pull balls. He used to just want to take balls to left field, and he has power that way. But at Dodger Stadium, we always talk about keeping the ball out of the air to left field. If you're going to hit the ball that way, it needs to be down the line, it needs to be something sharp because there's so many outs made over there. For every ball you hit out of the park at Dodger Stadium to left field, you're going to fly out 20 times. You can't really be lofting balls that way at Dodger Stadium. It's a big field and we play a lot of night games where the ball just isn't going to jump. When it's cool at night, it's not going to carry. If we played a ton of day games, it'd be a different story."

Torre has made a reputation -- and countless allies in the media -- with long, insightful answers. Before games he often sits in the dugout for 30 or 45 minutes, answering questions until no one can come up with anymore. He's relaxed no matter what is going on that day, sitting with his legs crossed and leaning back comfortably against the dugout wall as he sucks on the remnants of a plum pit.

Torre holds court like this for two reasons: To entertain the media horde long enough so they don't bother his players; and because he genuinely seems to like talking about baseball and telling old stories to whomever cares to listen.

It has been the perfect way of being for his stints with the Yankees and Dodgers. Calm, accountable, classy and engaging. Never too high or too low, always expecting better days ahead without panicking when "ahead" stretched out longer than anyone expected.

Like Phil Jackson did with the Lakers, Torre somehow managed to take the pressure off his players by making himself the central narrator of his team's story. He criticized the players when they performed poorly without sounding overly critical. He praised them when they played well without sounding satisfied.

There will be those who think that Mattingly will act and manage just as Torre does. But if you observe them closely, there are already stark differences.

Torre is unflappable, Mattingly is intense. Torre has seen it all three times, Mattingly will be seeing things from the managers' seat for the first time.

Torre lets veterans lead and gives them space to figure things out themselves. He stocks his roster with character guys like Doug Mientkiewitz, Casey Blake and Jamey Carroll. He takes good teams and helps them become great.

Mattingly works with hitters who constantly want to evolve and change. He spends his time figuring out how to break things down, to build them back up stronger.

It'll be interesting to watch how these differences affect the Dodgers going forward.

Can Mattingly lead a group of men and keep clubhouse harmony as artfully as Torre has? Will this stalled-out and frustrated team grow into its potential alongside its new manager?

Mattingly will need to grow into this job. But perhaps it's fitting that a young team whose confidence has been shaken this year will now be managed by a man who openly acknowledged that he'll spend a fair amount of next season learning and growing from his own missteps.

"I think his humility is going to help a lot," Dodgers owner Frank McCourt said. "He's not approaching it from the vantage point that he's going to be perfect and not going to make mistakes. He's realistic that you do make mistakes but you learn from them and that's how you become a winner."

We'll never know whether Tim Wallach would've been a better choice to succeed Torre. Or whether Torre would've returned had the Dodgers not endured such a disappointing season, or the team's ownership situation wasn't as murky.

Whatever the case, a new voice was needed next season. Torre's brilliance was being wasted now that the lights at Chavez Ravine aren't as bright.

It will to take work to turn those lights back on again.

Don Mattingly has the will and the work ethic to do that. Pretty soon we'll find out if it is enough.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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