Is Don Mattingly the man to lead the Dodgers to their first World Series in Clayton Kershaw’s lifetime? Is he capable?
In the wake of another disheartening series loss in St. Louis, which has become the team’s road house-of-horrors, over the weekend I put those very questions to the masses. And while you can scroll through the miles of comments for confirmation – and quite possibly for entertainment value – trust me when I tell you that the savvy baseball fans of Los Angeles touched on most of the common gripes about the man known affectionately in other parts of the country as Donnie Baseball.
Included was Mattingly’s obsessive, strange and textbook-defying (Gene-Mauch-would-roll-over-in-his-grave-like) use of the double switch, and his regular inability to best the managers he must to survive a championship season or an October.
Included was the hand-wringing over his bullpen management (or lack thereof) and the stubborn refusal to bench a struggling veteran, or even adjust his place in the lineup.
Mentioned more than once was the manner in which Mattingly was hired, without a single minority candidate being interviewed, without a competitive search process and without so much as a sniff for favorite son and former Pacific Coast League Manager of Year winner, Tim Wallach.
Included was a consensus that few in L.A. care a lick about what their skipper accomplished three decades ago for a rival franchise 3,000 miles away. If anything, the entire concept of pinstripes is a point of irritation.
Included was the unanswerable question about the number of wins a good manager may be worth in today’s game – WAR for skippers, anyone? – and an understanding accompanied with resignation that it’s better to have one than not. Oh, for a Bruce Bochy in Southern California.
Not included was a blow-by-blow of the recent series sweeps by Bochy’s Giants in San Francisco, one of which saw the Dodgers score a total of zero runes, or a dredging up of the postseason eliminations at the hands of the Cardinals in 2013 and 2014, with nearly every minute of every game of each of those series experienced with a sense of impending doom for the home folks.
Not included was a syllable of support for Mattingly’s late-game management skills, which former big league manager and current Dodger broadcaster Kevin Kennedy tackles diplomatically in terms of “the last nine outs.”
Not included was a recitation of excuses, because there is always an excuse in Los Angeles. If the Dodgers fail to live up to expectations, it cannot possibly be that the team was unprepared for a season or for an important series. There is always an excuse, and quite often more than one.
The injury excuse is ever-popular around Chavez Ravine most years, as is the phrase “it’s only May,” which remarkably was kept to a minimum as San Francisco went from worst-to-first last month, substituted here and here by the unfortunate umps-are-meanies excuse.
(I’m reminded of an old Tommy Lasorda sound bite, which maintains cult-like status in L.A. after being played for years on Jim Healy’s old radio show: “Ain’t my fuckin’ fault. Campanis is the fuckin guy!“)
Last October, the Dodger faithful was treated to the bullpen excuse, a poor one at that – a poor bullpen and a poor excuse. In prior campaigns, recalled are the owners-are-divorcing excuse, the bankruptcy excuse, the Yasiel-Puig-can’t-hit-the-cutoff-man excuse and the Matt-Kemp-and-or-Andre-Ethier-have-a-bum-ankle excuse.
Does L.A. have remaining patience for the whining about injuries and the umpiring, a perceived roster inflexibility or whatever excuse may be handy this day or the next? Can’t we all use a smidge less complaining about a pouting Hanley Ramirez, Puig’s constant tardiness or so-and-so being a problem in the clubhouse? Things unbecoming all.
Can’t the manager just take responsibility, and actually manage his way to the Fall Classic, despite whatever obstacles may fall in his path? Why is it always some other team’s skipper who finds a way to do more with less? Like Paul Molitor with his 2015 Minnesota Twins. Or almost any manager with almost any year’s Tampa Bay Rays?
At some point you have to win with what you’re given. And Don Mattingly has been given a lot. Since 2011 the club has replaced a hated owner with an experienced and respected group, it has changed front offices and organizational philosophies and spared no expense in turning over nearly an entire roster. The 2015 payroll currently exceeds $275 million. $275 million!
He has a balanced regular eight. He has a fine bench. He has Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. He has Kenley Jansen at the back of the bullpen. He has Adrian Gonzalez, Yasmani Grandal, Howie Kendrick, Joc Pederson and a revitalized Ethier. He has Puig returning from the disabled list shortly, and yet another Cuban star, Hector Olivera, preparing to join the club, at a cost of $62.5 million.
As with a supportive parent, who at some point will scold a child with a disappointing report card, “You’ve been given every opportunity, now go be successful!”
That point is now for Don Mattingly. Not 2016 or 2017 or 2018. Now through the end of October, 2015. It’s been World Series or bust for three years already.
This isn’t a call for Mattingly’s departure. His Dodgers are in first place, after all. But the question remains, can he push the right buttons? Is his team built for last-team-standing status, and if so, can he get them over the hump?
And if not this year, in his fifth opportunity and with the resources afforded him, when? Or is October success beyond the scope of his capabilities?