If you were hoping against hope that the Cubs would pull off a miraculous comeback, you awoke this morning a disappointed baseball fan. Me, I’m always happy when there are different teams in the postseason, and this year’s final four guaranteed at least one new team in the World Series. But it’ll be at least another season full of references to the billy goat, black cat, Bartman and the Cubs’ long World Series drought. At the Cubby Bear, they’re probably still drowning their sorrows.
You also awoke - or at least were getting your first cup of coffee at work - to news this morning that there could be a new candidate to replace the fired Matt Williams as the manager of the Nationals. Not that there haven’t been a significant number of candidates flying in and out of Reagan National Airport or taking cabs to South Capitol Street, but we’ll review them shortly.
Don Mattingly is out as manager of the Dodgers, according to a report this morning from John Heyman of CBSSports.com. By all accounts, it was a mutual parting, with Mattingly even turning down a possible contract extension from the team with the highest payroll in the majors (and seemingly pockets that are so deep that they reach ownership’s shoelaces). A formal announcement is expected later today - there’s a three-hour time difference to the West Coast and it’s a good bet any press briefing or even the issuance of a release was timed to coincide with the fact that it’s an off-day in the American League Championship Series (Major League Baseball abhors team announcements competing with its jewel events, like the playoffs).
So does that make him a legitimate candidate for the opening in Washington?
Previous major league managing experience? The 54-year-old Mattingly spent five years in Los Angeles and his teams never finished below .500. Check.
Success on the field? The former Yankees first baseman posted a .446-363 record good for a .551 winning percentage. He never finished lower than third in the National League West, a division that seems to be ever-changing in terms of who’s in charge. His clubs topped the division for the past three seasons. He reached the NLCS in 2013, but has been bounced in the National League Division Series each of the past two postseasons. Yep, that’s pretty good. Another check.
Roster and pitching management? Considering the fact that the Dodgers, despite their free-spending ways, could never find solid starting pitching behind aces Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, and that the only reliable bullpen arm was often closer Kenley Jansen, his success has been remarkable. He’s dealt with some prickly personalities in the Dodgers clubhouse and made the relationships work. Mattingly has gotten the most out of his charges and managed to find playing time for players when there didn’t seem to be any. Check and check.
Strategy? OK, some of his decisions have gone against baseball’s grain, and he was constantly being picked apart for his Xs and Os. But in a major media market like Los Angeles, that happens. That’s not to say it wouldn’t take place in the nation’s capital, but we’re talking apples and oranges here. The Nationals could win a World Series and get knocked off the front page by something a backup Redskins running back does or says. Tentative check.
Maybe Mattingly doesn’t have the pedigree that someone like a Dusty Baker boasts in terms of getting to the World Series, but he’s at least on par with Ron Gardenhire and has has more success than Bud Black. Those are the guys with previous major league managerial experience who have interviewed with Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who listed that as one of the key factors in his next manager the day he fired Williams.
Mattingly certainly eclipses candidates like Giants bench coach Ron Wotus, Diamondbacks third base coach Andy Green and D-backs Triple-A skipper Phil Nevin, all of whom have had interviews in D.C. That’s nothing against guys trying to carve out their niche, but Rizzo would be wise not to repeat the mistake of trusting a veteran-laden club to a guy in his first major league gig.
But what Mattingly may have that no other known candidate can offer is the fact that Nationals ownership actually has tried to lure him to D.C. in the past. They asked permission to speak to him in 2009, when he was still a coach with the Dodgers under Joe Torre, but eventually decided on Jim Riggleman. Probably a wise move; Riggleman was a transitional figure for a team in the land of triple-digit losses and those aren’t the kind of jobs that usually treat first-time managers kindly, even those with fire in the belly and stellar playing careers on their resumes.
Rizzo is known to be a fan of Mattingly, and who wouldn’t be a fan of a guy who had a reputation as a hard-nosed player who has to his credit an American League Most Valuable Player award, an AL batting title, six All-Star nods, nine Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers and an on-the-field reputation that had him the team captain of the Yankees? In 14 seasons in The Bronx, primarily as a first baseman, Mattingly posted a .307/.358/.471 slash line with 222 homers and 1,099 RBIs. That he never received more than 20.1 percent of the Hall of Fame vote - and that came in his first year of eligibility in 2001 - is one of baseball’s true riddles.
As a player, Mattingly always had a reputation of a quietly fiery guy who would never be satisfied with just being good. As a manager, he has proven adept at pushing the right buttons and taking the heat when he pushed the wrong ones. The ability to deal with ownership that wanted instant success upon spending money, which is something Mattingly did in Los Angeles, would come in handy in D.C. If the Nationals are being honest when they say that, despite expected free agent losses this offseason, they don’t feel like their window to win is closing, then Mattingly could be the kind of experienced influence that could provide clubhouse leadership, deal with young players and veterans alike and seize an opportunity with a team that isn’t afraid to spend big or make moves it feels are necessary to win.