Skip to main content
Original Issue

In a Tough Spot

As one of the game's best players, Donnie Baseball was more prepared than anyone else on the field. But getting the highest-priced team in the majors to care as much as he does has proved to be a challenge. In order to lead the Dodgers to the title that's eluded him, he'll have to find a way

NEITHER CLOUD nor collared shirt dares intrude on the 1.4 equable square miles of Hermosa Beach, where remodeled bungalows packed tightly like life-sized Legos sell for millions. Here, nearly close enough to the Pacific to hear the ocean crash, Don Mattingly, the manager of the Dodgers, begins the morning routine that will steel him for the cauldron of pressure awaiting him as manager of the Dodgers.

The coffeepot is on. Upon a wooden chest that serves as a coffee table lies an open Bible, its spine as worn and wobbly as Mattingly's own. A pair of eyeglasses rests on the open book. Wedged between a nearby end table and the living room wall is an inflatable fitness ball. The reading glasses and fitness ball are the accoutrements of an age that otherwise doesn't seem to fit someone who still looks as if he could play, and still inspires the youthful, diminutive Donnie, evoking the too-short glory days when Donnie Baseball was among the best players in the game. Mattingly is now 53 and retired from playing for more years (19 years) than he was active as a professional (17).

Body and soul, this is how each day begins for Mattingly. He will read passages from the Bible and exercise his back. And this year his morning routine has acquired another devotion: Thinking about how to get the most expensive team in sports to care as deeply about baseball as he does.

"This," says Los Angeles outfielder Andre Ethier, "is a tough team to manage."

Caught between a roster of expensive stars and an ownership group that lusts for quick success, Mattingly has one of the more difficult jobs in baseball. So loaded are the Dodgers that when they opened the season with two games against the Diamondbacks in Sydney, seven players they left in the States earned more ($116 million) than the total salaries of 20 teams. With $241 million in payroll, L.A. ended the Yankees' 15-year run as baseball's most expensive team. Yet flaws and challenges abound.

For all of the Dodgers' star power, including two dominant aces in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, Mattingly has a team that too often does not execute the finer points of the game. They rank 10th in the NL in defensive efficiency, a measurement of how often teams turn batted balls into outs. The baserunning, even with the emergence of speedy Dee Gordon, is poor; the Dodgers lead the league in running into the most outs on the bases, and they are a bottom-five club in the percentage of times their runners take an extra base. The bullpen is second in the NL in walks and losses.

Above all, the game of musical chairs in the outfield has been a drag on the club. Mattingly has four outfielders—Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, Ethier and Yasiel Puig—whose combined contracts are worth $429 million. When all are healthy, one must sit. "It's not a good issue, honestly," Mattingly says. He is the kind of salt-of-the-earth Midwesterner who liberally uses the word honestly, even though everything about him renders it superfluous.

Kemp, Crawford and Ethier have all been below-average hitters, and the daily questions about who plays where and when provide the kind of friction rivals enjoy seeing. The team's best option to complement Puig just might be Joc Pederson, a 22-year-old who is tearing up Triple A. But Pederson is blocked by the three veterans with the heavy contracts.

"The Dodgers may have the most talent," said one rival NL general manager, "so what you root for with them is drama—internal drama."

Over the past two years, the team has played mediocre baseball (83--93) wrapped around one historically hot stretch last midsummer (42--8). Through the end of last week they were 33--31 and 9½ games out of first in the division, though in the running for a wild card.

"When I first took over," says Mattingly, now in his fourth year, "I said I wanted a tough team. Tough is not beating your chest and yelling and screaming. Tough is getting ready to play every day.

"Honestly? That's what I miss about playing more than anything: that battle. Go take on Randy Johnson. Get yourself ready for that. That isn't about 'go take a little BP and step in the box.' That guy's throwing 98, and it's coming from behind your head. You better have your mind right or you're going to be embarrassed.

"To me that's the toughness you want from your team. Can you trust them to come to the ballpark and be ready to play that night? All 25 guys?"

By a June 4 loss to the White Sox, he didn't seem to feel that he could. His frustration bubbled to the surface.

"I really think you should talk to the [players]. I'm tired of answering the questions, honestly," Mattingly told reporters after the game. "It's just being basically s-----. We're just not that good."

The quiet mornings in Hermosa Beach and the golden-boy nickname belie the hard-knock life that prepared Mattingly for this job. The son of a mailman who was a World War II veteran, Mattingly grew up in Evansville, Ind., and learned too young about how suddenly death can visit a family. He lost his great playing skills to a congenital back problem, he twice quit the game he loves for family reasons, and he nearly was fired last year. Whether he succeeds or fails with this team, Mattingly will do what he can to imbue it with his own toughness and to reach the World Series—a destination that has eluded him for his 3,428 games as a player, coach and manager during rare Series droughts by the Yankees and the Dodgers, two of the most decorated franchises in baseball.

LAST OCTOBER, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti sat alongside Mattingly for a routine, end-of-season press conference with no idea of what was coming. It was three days after the Dodgers lost Game 6 of the NL Championship Series to the Cardinals, and instead of delivering the usual platitudes, Mattingly ripped his bosses for allowing him to manage the 2013 season on the last year of his contract.

"It's been a frustrating, tough year, honestly," Mattingly said. "Because I think when you ... come in basically as a lame duck with the payroll and the guys that you have, it puts you in a tough spot in the clubhouse.... I like being here, but you don't want to be anywhere you're not wanted."

Colletti did his best not to give away his shock. Watching on television, Kershaw, too, was stunned.

"Actually," Kershaw says, "it was uncomfortable to watch. But there was something refreshing about it at the same time. He told everybody exactly how he felt."

Mattingly's job status had been so shaky just two months into last season that media outlets were reporting his firing was imminent. Says catcher A.J. Ellis, "I remember we were one loss [against] San Diego away from him getting fired. That's how close it was."

Then came a 42--8 run—a 50-game stretch from June to August bettered only by the 1906 Cubs—that was fueled by a return to health by shortstop Hanley Ramirez and the arrival of Puig. It saved Mattingly's job. Colletti thought he had reached an understanding with Mattingly in the second half of the season that they would "get through the year and then figure out" his contract status. But Mattingly quietly seethed that without a long-term commitment from ownership, he lacked full authority over his players. He had grown up in the game under managerial chaos; he played for eight Yankees managers in his first 11 years.

"I saw how instability affected a team and how guys talked," Mattingly said. "They'd say, 'Well, he'll be gone soon,' and they had no respect. They just felt like it was going to be a revolving door."

Says team president Stan Kasten, "Actually, what I think last year proved beyond any doubt is that there is absolutely nothing to this media story line that someone in the last year of their contract is a lame duck. Did the team go 42--8? Did they play hard for him? Yes. So that should end the argument forever."

Two months after the awkward press conference, the Dodgers announced a three-year contract extension for Mattingly. He does not like to revisit the confrontation.

"I don't want to cause our club any more turmoil," he says. "Last year was a frustrating year. It wasn't worked out. It is now. I'm happy here. I just had to stand up for what I believe in."

What Mattingly believes in is giving an honest effort and getting the respect that should follow. Violations of his creed are not easily dismissed. The outburst against the Dodgers' front office followed a similar pattern from his playing days.

After the 1988 season, for instance, Mattingly had enough of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's calling him selfish and charging him with caring more about records than wins. He was packing up his Tenafly, N.J., home for the off-season when he called the Boss.

"George, you love giving guys second chances," Mattingly said. "You love bringing in guys with problems and trying to revitalize them. And guys show up at camp late, overweight and with all kind of issues. And I'm in shape every day, I'm never a problem, I'm a no-maintenance guy—and you're going to criticize me? You can't treat me like that. You have to treat me with respect."

"Hey," Steinbrenner said, "I'll send you to Cleveland!"

"Good," Mattingly said. "Send me to Cleveland. Send me anywhere you want. But you can't take the field from me. I can play anywhere."

"Well, good luck to you!"


Mattingly looked at his then wife, Kim. "We might as well put this thing on the market," he told her. "We're going to be out of here."

Instead, Mattingly's relationship with Steinbrenner improved dramatically. "It was almost like once I stood up for myself, it was O.K.," he said. "After that he treated me like gold."

Three years later, just before a 1991 game, manager Stump Merrill told him to trim his mullet or he could not play. Mattingly, only months after being named captain, thought about it for a moment and replied, "You know what? I'm not playing."

"If they just would have said, 'Hey, your hair's getting a little long,' I would have got it cut," he said. "But this was an ultimatum—in your face right now. You're going to single me out? I'm still the guy that's playing hard for you every day."

Mattingly sat that day and got a trim the next afternoon. He had made his point.

WHEN KEMP arrived for the Dodgers' home opener this year, he was angered to see Mattingly had not written his name into the lineup. But then Puig was late to the ballpark, so Mattingly scratched him out and wrote in Kemp. Last month Ethier came to the ballpark expecting to start against Giants righthander Matt Cain, against whom he was 30 for 70. Instead he saw Kemp, Puig and Crawford listed.

"It's not easy for any of us," Ethier says. "We all have done enough in this game to earn the right to be in the lineup and not have to check it every day, and yet we know that's not the case here. The strange thing about this team is we have a bunch of guys who are capable of carrying a team for a while, and yet it hasn't happened."

Mattingly began the season with a rotation of sorts among the four outfielders. It didn't take long, though, for him to see that Puig was the best player on the team and, he says, "the best rightfielder in baseball." Meanwhile Kemp, the MVP runner-up three years ago, had not yet returned to form after left-ankle surgery last year. His defense in center was lacking, and Mattingly moved him to left, though he only grudgingly accepted the switch to a position he had not played since he was a 21-year-old rookie in 2006. Then Crawford injured his ankle.

"It's a different group," Mattingly says, "because we have guys from all over who have had a lot of success. It's a fun group, but there are a lot of egos. When you have guys with past success, veteran guys who make a lot of money, it has to be, 'We want to do this.' There's no banging somebody over the head, 'You're doing this.' It has to be, 'We all want to do this together.'"

Puig has become a constant in Mattingly's lineup. He has sanded down the rough edges of his game without sacrificing any of his joy and energy.

"I enjoy Puig, but he drives me crazy," Mattingly said. "I love the growth. I love the development. I love the talent. I love the energy he plays with. It's like a Little Leaguer. That's the best part of Yasiel. He loves playing. He wants to win. And some of the stuff he does on the field is incredible. You just don't see anybody else do the things he does.

"Some of the stuff, yeah, it drives you crazy. He tries to throw a guy out at home from the wall and lets a guy advance. But that stuff is hardly happening anymore. He hits every cutoff man. And the biggest difference is this year he is hitting strikes. He's making pitchers come into the zone rather than getting himself out by chasing pitches out of the zone. I don't think I've ever seen a hitter make that big of a change that quickly. It's like a light switch being turned on."

In his first calendar year in the big leagues, starting on June 3, 2013, Puig hit .328 with 30 homers, 82 RBIs and a .968 OPS. In Joe DiMaggio's first calendar year he hit .327 with 29 homers, 125 RBIs and a .932 OPS. Puig also ran into 20 outs on the bases in that first year, more than anybody else in baseball during that time.

IN HIS own day Mattingly was as much a star as anyone on his current team. "I'll never forget the '86 All-Star Game," says Dave Righetti, the Giants' pitching coach and Mattingly's teammate with the Yankees from 1982 to '90. "We were in the dugout before the game. And the biggest stars in the game are all there, and all they want to do is talk about Donnie: Kirby Puckett, George Brett, Eddie Murray.... Kirby is walking up and down going, 'Donnie Baseball! There he is! It's Donnie Baseball!' The Yankees weren't very good in those years, but we had Donnie."

Mattingly's rise to greatness was extraordinary. Within six years he turned himself from a 19th-round draft pick from Evansville's Reitz Memorial High School into the game's best player.

"I was his teammate when he was an 18-year-old kid out of high school who showed up in Oneonta, N.Y., in 1979," says Brian Butterfield, now a coach with the Red Sox. "He had a below-average arm, was a below-average outfielder, didn't hit for power.

"But even then—and I was out of college, he was out of high school—I looked up to him. He was more prepared than any of us. He made himself into a great player more than anybody I have ever seen."

From 1984 to '86 Mattingly hit .340 while averaging 30 homers, 123 RBIs and 105 runs, winning one MVP and finishing second for another. And then one day in Milwaukee in '87, he bent over to field a pregame grounder and knew something was very wrong. His back locked up.

Mattingly had had a bad back for years, troubling him in the minors and even in high school. "It was there the whole time," he says.

He was put into traction. Not long after he got back to the field, he homered in eight straight games, tying a major league record. But each year the back grew worse.

"I'd get better, but then I'd go hit or take ground balls, and it would be like, Oh, it's frickin' killin' me," he says. "It would ache all the time. I can't get loose, I can't spin on the ball."

His power disappeared. Mattingly slugged .543 through 1987, but only .424 after. He retired after the '95 season, but not just because of the back. He had three school-age sons at home in Indiana that he missed terribly. "The price I was paying, I was unwilling to pay anymore," he says. "I felt like I couldn't give what it took for me to be successful."

The Yankees offered him a multiyear contract. He turned it down. In his first year out of baseball, they won the World Series—for the first time since 1978, the year before he was drafted.

MATTINGLY WAS just seven years old in the summer of 1968, when the knock at the front door came. He immediately sensed something wasn't right. "Go in the backyard and wait there," his parents told him. The backyard was where the Mattingly boys played Wiffle ball. Jerry, 23, was the oldest, followed by Randy, 17; Michael, 13; and Donnie. The backyard was where Donnie developed that sweet lefthanded, opposite-field stroke: Because a low-hanging tree blocked balls hit to rightfield, Donnie would swat balls to left, where they could carry over two garages and into an alley.

Now the boy sat alone in the yard and waited. Inside the house, Mary and Bill Mattingly heard the terrible news. It was Jerry.

Jerry had been one of the town's greatest athletes; he teamed with Jerry Sloan to help Evansville win the 1965 NCAA Division II basketball championship. He had married and had just accepted a job as the recreational director at a local school. This was his last week on his summer job with a construction company, and they were laying asphalt on the new interstate, I-64, in Posey County.

His foot got caught under a piece of heavy machinery. Nobody noticed until it was too late.

When Mary and Bill called Donnie into the house, he saw the pain on their faces.

"They were a mess after that," said Mattingly. He bowed his head.

"My brother ... he was 23...."

He dabbed at his eyes.

"Seeing how my other brothers reacted, my parents, what my mom and dad went through.... I saw that, but I don't think I understood it at the time."

He wiped away tears, unable to say anything else about that day 46 years ago.

ON THE first day home from a nine-game trip last month, Mattingly called a team meeting. Though the Dodgers had gone 5--4, each day seemed to cause Mattingly more unease. He didn't see a team properly invested in the process of getting ready to play, and he worried that his players clung to a false confidence that another 42--8 run was just around the corner.

"It's about the process of winning," he told them at the meeting. "You have enough talent. Now if you go about your business the right way and hold yourself accountable, if you set those standards high, you're going to win. If you just have all the talent alone, you may get away with it, but why even take the chance?"

Mattingly has tried various tweaks: shifting Kemp, moving Puig from second to third in the batting order to give him more run-producing opportunities, extra pregame defensive work. Nothing has produced a major impact.

As a player Mattingly took heat for not being more of a vocal leader on those unstable Yankees teams. He did not appear to be obvious managerial material; few great players are, and few first basemen are. (Mattingly is the only active major league manager who primarily played first base.) But he missed nothing, especially when it came to the culture of teams. He once suggested that the Yankees trade him to the Twins because he admired how hard they ran out ground balls. He watched Tony La Russa's A's teams play with a confidence that the manager seemed to wear on his face.

"That interested me: the effect a manager could have," Mattingly said. "The manager doesn't change the way you play, but he affects the attitude, the whole atmosphere."

After all the upheaval in New York, Mattingly finally saw firsthand how a manager could inspire respect when, going into 1992, the Yankees hired Buck Showalter, a former Double A teammate. Showalter told him something that he still leans on today: "I've got to have guys in the locker room that it bothers them when we lose."

Said Mattingly, "That made sense to me because I had been playing with some guys where it really didn't bother them when we lost because if they got their hits, they were happy. I saw the middle-of-the-road guys, if they had a bunch of bad guys around them, they would just drift the wrong way. If you had enough good guys, [the middle guys] would fall on the good side of the fence and play the game right. "

Mattingly spent four years out of baseball to reconnect with his family. The Yankees won the World Series three times in those four years. In 2000 he worked part-time for New York as a guest spring training instructor and occasional minor league talent evaluator. After the '03 season, with "the blessings of my sons," he jumped back in as the Yankees' hitting coach and, later, bench coach.

It appeared as if he was being groomed as the eventual replacement for manager Joe Torre, but when Torre left after the 2007 season and was quickly hired by the Dodgers, New York hired Joe Girardi instead. General manager Brian Cashman preferred Girardi because of Girardi's previous managing experience and because he was uncertain about how Mattingly would run a bullpen, an area the Yankees wanted to improve after Torre's aggressive use of his relievers. (As Dodgers manager, Mattingly has exhibited similar tendencies; the Dodgers ranked fourth in the NL last year in bullpen appearances and are second this year.)

"Honestly, I took it O.K.," Mattingly says. "I had been a bench coach only for one year.... Cash made a good decision. It's been good for them and good for me."

The Dodgers hired Mattingly to be Torre's hitting coach in Los Angeles. But he stepped away from the position when his marriage of nearly 30 years fell apart in a public, messy fashion. Three months after the couple filed for divorce, Kim Mattingly was arrested on his property and was charged with public intoxication and disorderly conduct. Colletti told him to take as much time as he needed. Mattingly described himself as "a mess" who rarely left his apartment in Evansville in the first half of the 2008 season. One night he finally said to himself, I've got to get out. He called a friend and suggested they find a place to watch the Dodgers' game. Colletti had asked him to keep tabs on the hitters.

"I'm sitting there watching the game, not really caring about people around me," Mattingly said. "Then I see this girl walk across the room. She's beautiful. I think, No way she's from Evansville."

Lori McClarney was indeed from Evansville. They married two years later.

LOOK AT Donnie's office and you get an idea of the kind of guy he is," says Mitch Poole, the Dodgers' clubhouse manager. "It's filled with pictures, but none of himself. He has a picture of his wife on his desk. That's it."

The walls in the office are filled mostly with pictures of Dodgers greats. One wall is filled by a huge whiteboard that has magnetic labels of all the players in the L.A. system. The whiteboard has hinged doors on each end.

"When things are going bad, this is all I have to do to remind myself I don't have it so bad," Mattingly said with a laugh. He grabbed the whiteboard door and swung it closed, revealing a blow-up mug shot on the wall of an unsmiling Torre from his 1970s Cardinals playing days, replete with muttonchops, a day-old beard and an apparent lack of sleep.

"Joe was always teaching me the game, mentoring me," Mattingly said, "but he never talked about the front-office relationship with me. That was private."

A group of investors led by chairman Mark Walter purchased the Dodgers in 2012 for $2.15 billion. Their plans to win a title quickly were buoyed by a television deal with Time Warner Cable that pays the team $8.35 billion over 25 years, beginning with $210 million this year. The team leads the major leagues in attendance. The farm system is growing in strength after languishing under Frank McCourt, the previous owner. The owners want badly to win now.

The Dodgers, Mattingly said, remind him of the 1995 Yankees. Honestly.

"This organization has a chance to build something that's really, really good for a really long time," he says. "This is a great place to be right now. Ownership talks about how we have to be good now. But we also want to build a sustainable plan. To me, that's what I love about it. And hopefully I'll be around."

The game of musical chairs in the outfield has been a drag on the club. THE DAILY QUESTIONS ABOUT WHO PLAYS WHERE AND WHEN LEAD TO FRICTION.

"I saw how instability affected a team and how guys talked," Mattingly says. "THEY'D SAY,'WELL, HE'LL BE GONE SOON,' and they had no respect."

From 1984 to '86, Mattingly hit .340 while averaging 30 homers, 123 RBIs and 105 runs. THEN ONE DAY IN '87, HE BENT OVER AND KNEW SOMETHING WAS VERY WRONG.

After retiring in 1995, Mattingly spent four years out of baseball. THE YANKEES WON THE SERIES THREE TIMES IN THOSE YEARS.


Will the Dodgers go on another tear this summer to rival last year's 42--8 hot streak? For more, check out Jay Jaffe at


Photograph by John W. McDonough Sports Illustrated





FOUR'S A CROWD While Puig has become a constant in Mattingly's lineup, (from top) Ethier, Crawford and Kemp must battle for at bats.



[See caption above]



[See caption above]



[See caption above]



CHAOS THEORY Mattingly played for eight managers in 11 years with the Yankees (including Billy Martin three separate times).



BOSSED AROUND Mattingly got along well with George Steinbrenner (left) after standing up for himself.



PASSED TORCH When the Yankees didn't promote Mattingly, he followed Torre (left) to L.A.; three years later he succeeded Torre on the bench.