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Today the Dodgers are led by Dave Roberts, who is currently leading his Dodgers squad on a Sherman-like march through the National League, seemingly on the way to baseball’s promised land. Much has been made of this year’s clubhouse culture, it’s cohesiveness, and unselfish approach to winning. Despite a number of players that could be legitimate team MVPs, there are no outward signs of over sized egos or jealousy when someone else shines in the spotlight. Instead, there is a sincere feeling of camaraderie, shared struggle, and unselfishness that underlies this team’s victories.
Word is growing around social media that former Dodgers manager, Don Mattingly, could have and should have cultivated the same philosophy with the squads under his leadership. The rumor is the Dodgers didn’t reach the same level of baseball fellowship because of Mattingly’s faults.
Granted, Don Mattingly is no Tommy Lasorda, whether as a leader of men or as a baseball strategist, but I remember Mattingly did a pretty good job of holding together a team populated with selfish and bloated egos. He also managed to keep a good amount of their drama off the front pages.
Don Mattingly isn’t a very good manager between the lines, but what do you expect when someone is given that challenging position without any managing experience at the lower levels? Mattingly had to learn to manage a marquee team on the fly, and it turned out he wasn’t very good at it. One thing he did learn from Joe Torre, his managing mentor, was how to deal with clubhouse drama in a mostly calm and quiet way.
Mattingly had to walk a blue minefield of hair-trigger egos, such as overpaid has-been, Carl Crawford, “leave me alone” Zack Grienke, pouty Andre Ethier, and “play me or I’ll throw a tantrum” Matt Kemp. In The Best Team Money Can Buy, author Molly Knight said, “The 2013 Dodgers were less a team than they were twenty-five separate corporations.” One anonymous team executive was quoted as saying the Dodgers were “more like a collection of fancy baseball cards than an actual team.”
Despite having to juggle 25 individual islands, Don Mattingly was the only franchise manager to lead the Dodgers to three straight playoff appearances. Today we are comparing this year’s Dodgers’ mind-blowing winning streak of 43-7 with Mattingly’s 2013 Dodgers 42-8 streak. The team repeatedly won the National League West under Mattingly, but they were always let down by a manager who never mastered in-game strategy. Unfortunately for Dodger fans, he never showed much aptitude to effectively learn from the experience either.
Dave Roberts is certainly responsible for much of the culture within his clubhouse. But similar to circumstances in our lives, his work environment is also shaped by a number of circumstances beyond his control. Dodgers President Andrew Friedman has been crafting the Dodgers’ team chemistry since 2014, and it’s finally paying dividends. General Manager Farhan Zaidi adds new ingredients to the Dodgers with one eye fixed on any new player’s personal history and how they will gel – or not – with the Dodgers concept of synergy.
Other circumstances outside Roberts’ control this season: injuries and a lackluster squad that forced the Dodgers to get younger, much faster than they planned. Cody Bellinger and Chris Taylor weren’t on the opening day roster. They were shoved into the lineup by necessity.
Andre Ethier and his often combative personality were sidelined early, by a spring training broken leg. Yasiel Puig was one year older and wiser, and batting coach Turner Ward found the key to harnessing Puig’s youthful enthusiasm. Erase one potential malcontent, add a maturing superstar and several players who are grateful just to be in the show, and that makes the job a lot easier for a manager who’s clearly a natural for the position.
Don Mattingly just isn’t a World Series caliber manager. I don’t know if he will ever be. However, it’s an unfair jab to take two completely different sets of circumstances and apply them equally to him. Every manager has to balance player’s egos, the goals of the organization, and his own self-preservation. It isn’t an easy job for any of them, but it sure helps when the boss and fate are on your side.