Don Mattingly reaching breaking point
Mild-mannered Dodgers manager sends a message, although subtle, as team struggles
LOS ANGELES -- Don Mattingly is a mild-mannered guy, far more a reflection of his upbringing in Evansville, Ind., than of his long, successful career as a big league ballplayer in the media fishbowl of New York. He also seems to be a fairly patient man, a personality trait that is fitting for a rookie manager whose job is to try to squeeze as many victories as he can from a team that, well, let's just say isn't exactly loaded.
Even mild-mannered, patient guys reach their breaking point, though. And on Saturday night, after watching his club practically sleepwalk through its fifth consecutive loss and its fourth defeat in five games this season against the team with the worst record in the majors -- this time, the Dodgers fell 7-0 to the Houston Astros before 36,124 at Dodger Stadium -- Mattingly finally had to say something.
As team meetings go, it must have been short and to the point. Most of the time, you know when somebody is having one because the media is kept out of the clubhouse much longer than the customary 10 minutes after the final out, but that didn't happen this time. In fact, we wouldn't have known anything about it unless Mattingly had volunteered it to us, and he volunteered it to us without much prodding.
"We had a quick meeting," he acknowledged. "It was nothing major, just a quick message."
And that message was?
"We have to keep going and keep fighting, that's all there is to it," he said. "There is a game tomorrow at 1 o'clock, and I want us to dismiss this one quickly. We can't feel sorry for ourselves at this point. I know it would be easy to make excuses and say 'woe is me,' but we can't do it. We don't have time to be frustrated. We have to get ready to play again, and that is what I asked guys to do."
The obvious question at that point, with the Dodgers having just fallen 10 games below .500 for the first time in six years, was whether Mattingly senses some of his players' frustration -- the kind that causes them to waste at-bats, that tends to be carried into the next day's game and so on and so forth until, before you know it, you're playing out the string on a lost season.
"Not so much," Mattingly said. "I just wanted to make sure we are all on the same page if there was a guy here or a guy there. I wanted them to hear that message."
There have been times this season when Mattingly has managed like a rookie manager, when his inexperience has shown through, but those times haven't been all that frequent. Something impressive is Mattingly's ability to sort of reveal certain things, cryptically but clearly, without actually saying them and without calling out or embarrassing a specific player, and this was a perfect example of that.
Obviously, and despite his answer to the question, Mattingly does feel that certain players are becoming victims of their own frustration, otherwise he wouldn't have felt the need to have such a meeting or convey such a message. His reference to "if there was a guy here or a guy there," made it clear he believes there is such a guy, or a handful of such guys, somewhere in his clubhouse, and that his most urgent job as manager is to make sure those guys don't infect the rest of the room at a point when the season appears, at least to the naked eye, to be slipping away.
Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp, the one guy in the room who is producing offensively, admitted some players on the team might be letting their frustration sabotage their game.
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"I'm sure it has," he said. "There have been guys who probably aren't playing the way they want to play. We all feel frustration at times because it's part of the game. But every day is a new day."
Kemp's point was valid, but for the Dodgers (31-41), right now, every day is like Groundhog Day, and it's a day Mattingly is tired of living over and over again.
Mattingly has said repeatedly this season he doesn't think what is going on with owner Frank McCourt and what appears to be an inevitable takeover by Major League Baseball in the coming weeks has affected his team on the field in the least. He may be right about that, although the result is pretty much the same, the Dodgers languishing in fourth place in the National League West, 8½ games back.
Still, for Mattingly, it has to be a bit of a weird spot. He has waited a long time for this first shot at managing -- three years longer, in fact, than he originally thought he would when he appeared to be Joe Torre's heir apparent with the New York Yankees. And now, in his first year, he is saddled with an injury-riddled, offensively challenged club that probably isn't going anywhere this year, and if there is an ownership change in the next few months, who knows what will happen after that?
New owners have a tendency to want to clean house when they arrive, to install their own people at the top. Mattingly has a three-year contract, easy enough to buy out for an owner with deep pockets, and you can bet whoever ends up buying this club will have those. And if Mattingly's stint here is a short one and is without success, there is no way to know what that will mean for his future managerial prospects.
At any rate, the one thing Mattingly can't afford is the perception he is sitting idly by as this season circles the drain. This wasn't the first team meeting he has held this year, and it might not be the last. Will it change anything? Maybe not. But if Mattingly had a message to send, not only to his moribund team but to anyone on the outside who might be observing and quietly evaluating his ability to lead a club, he sent that message loudly, concisely and quickly Saturday night.
Mattingly has had enough of what he is seeing. That doesn't mean he won't have to see any more of it. His laid-back personality aside, though, he is going to fight it every step of the way. All he is asking of his players is that they do the same.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.