Calm, cool Mattingly has earned right to celebrate
Dodgers skipper displays humility despite uncertain contract status
LOS ANGELES -- The team chairman and the manager met by the door that led into the champagne-soaked Dodgers clubhouse and embraced.
The Dodgers had just completed their 4-3 win in Game 4 on Monday night -- an epic evening in which Juan Uribe earned a permanent place in Dodgers postseason lore -- and punched their ticket to the National League Championship Series against an as-yet-unknown opponent. Mark Walter, controlling partner of the Dodgers' ownership group, pulled Don Mattingly, whose hair was sopped in beer and sweat and the smell of victory, in for a hug and congratulated him on a job well done.
"Now," Mattingly said, "we can party for three days."
He was joking, of course.
But if anybody deserved a celebratory moment, it was Donnie Baseball.
His modest $1.4 million contract option for 2014 still dangling in front of him, Mattingly's job security has been a constant source of speculation, despite a summer surge up the NL West standings and a division title. Even this four-game takedown of a 96-win Braves team in the first round might not necessarily be enough to ensure he's still around next year, making for a fascinating subplot to an October story that gets more dramatic by the day.
Mattingly, though, has handled his twist in the wind with the class and professionalism that made him such a beloved ballplayer on some not-so-lovable Yankees teams. He hasn't campaigned publicly for an extension, as so many others have. He's remained content to let his club do the talking.
And while Mattingly undoubtedly opened himself up to no shortage of second-guesses over the course of this series (par for the October course), the end result -- a team loaded with strong and disparate personalities melding together to reach the doorstep of the World Series -- is a credit to his steady hand.
"The guys love him," Magic Johnson told reporters just before this series started. "They love playing for him. And it's funny, they all say the same thing. He's the nicest, sweetest guy up until the game, and then he turns. Just like I am. I love you, right up until the game, and then I'll tear your heart out."
This season threatened to tear out the heart of Magic and the Dodgers' brass, who poured so much money and so much energy into a ballclub that appeared to be going nowhere. Mattingly's job was in jeopardy, but anybody who has played for George Steinbrenner knows a thing or two about performing under pressure.
Way back in mid-May, when the Dodgers were eight games under .500 and seven games back in the West, Mattingly challenged the effort level of what was an underachieving -- albeit injury-rattled -- ballclub.
"We've got to find the club with talent," he said, "that will fight and compete like the club that doesn't have talent."
How's this for fighting and competing? Down to their final six outs in Game 4, facing the best bullpen in the game and dangerously close to another cross-country trek to Atlanta, the Dodgers rallied behind Yasiel Puig's leadoff eighth-inning double and Uribe's mammoth blast to left.
You can't draw up that kind of stuff. And in fact, Mattingly didn't draw it up that way at all. He wanted Uribe bunting in that situation in an attempt to get the runner to third -- a move that would have been considered questionable even if Uribe hadn't failed to get it down and opted instead for the long ball.
In the moment when Uribe's bat connected with David Carpenter's pitch, Mattingly had the same thought as the rest of us.
"Why am I bunting him?" he said. "That's what I was thinking at first. But really, I am thinking about shooting the ball to the right side, putting the ball in play, driving a runner over. And next thing you know, as soon as he hit it, I knew it was gone. So instant kind of craziness.
"I'm thinking the playoffs are so stupid, aren't they? Just crazy."
You don't always get that sort of honesty from a Major League skipper, and you don't always get such a down-to-earth demeanor from a guy so accomplished at this level. There is no question that Mattingly manages by the book, sometimes to a fault, and this October environment has had the effect of underlining those moments when the book betrays him. But even if you want to second-guess some of those strategies, what you have to respect is the conviction he brings to this job, the way he handles what easily could have been a dysfunctional roster and, above all else, the end result.
"I said it after we clinched, and I'll say it again now: The staff has done a great job keeping this club together," Mattingly said. "I can't say enough about them."
Mattingly spent his postgame interviews going out of his way to praise the work of others. He expressed his admiration for Kershaw's toughness, his awe of Puig's energy and his gratitude for Uribe's magnetizing personality. He went out of his way to congratulate Atlanta on a splendid season.
What he didn't talk much about, unsurprisingly, is himself. In a Dodgers season full of soap operas -- from the injuries that cost them Matt Kemp to the San Diego showdown between Zack Greinke and Carlos Quentin to the early season struggles to the madness of the summer surge to the world's most talked-about pool party -- Mattingly's humility has been a constant and a blessing. A cool head has prevailed, even as his job status looms -- some would say unnecessarily -- in the background.
Maybe a three-day party wasn't in order. But one night wouldn't hurt.