You don't feel sorry for Don Mattingly. He manages a financial bully, and no one likes financial bullies in baseball. The Dodgers didn't just start spending more than every other team, they made a point to be proud of it and remind us every third day. They had a We're The New Yankees debutante ball, and everyone who attended got a gift bag with an iPad in it. There are 500 different baseball people you should feel sorry for before Mattingly.
In this article, I will attempt to make you feel sorry for Don Mattingly.
On June 10, 2013, Mattingly was a dead manager bunting. He was gone, so gone. The Dodgers were going to stuff him into the cannon of high expectations and shoot him into the sea. A year ago today, his team was 27-36. Riley Breckenridge took time every week to photoshop rotting pumpkins in place of Mattingly's face as a way to gauge how close he was to being canned. They were never fresh pumpkins.
From June 22 to September 3, though, the Dodgers went 45-13, one of the best stretches in franchise history, and Mattingly was no longer a pumpkin face. More than that, he was the kind of manager who could ask for an extension and get it. He was successful. He was established. He was Don Mattingly, successful manager.
Almost halfway through the 2014 season, though, the Dodgers aren't happy. They're 34-31, good enough to be within a game or two of the NL East and AL Central, but still disappointing relative to expectations. Mattingly recently chided his team for being selfish in a post-game rant last week.
"I'm not thinking about any of that right now. Honestly, so tired of talking about individual guys instead of talking about us as a club and how we are going to win games. There's so much focus on individual guys that we've gotten away from, 'What's the team doing? How are we going to win games?' "
If this reads familiar, it's because it is. From last year:
"There has to be a mixture of competitiveness," Mattingly said. "It's not 'Let's put an All-Star team together and the All-Star team wins.' It's finding that balance of a team that has a little bit of grit and will fight you and also having talent to go with it."
You could actually play a game of "pick the year" with Mattingly, putting quotes from this time last year against his quotes. What's old is new again, and Mattingly's trying the same playbook because he can't grab a bat and go up to the plate himself. I have no idea if Mattingly actually believes any of this. Maybe he really thinks the reason the 2013 Dodgers were ultimately successful is that they accepted grit in their hearts as their personal savior. Maybe he's saying words because people expect words.
I'll tell you why I feel bad for Mattingly, though: He has the toughest manager's job in baseball. And it isn't really close.
If you're in a hurry, you can read this sentence and go: Baseball is the wrong sport for impossible expectations. Yet Mattingly has nearly impossible expectations. Let's count the ways.
First, the four-outfielder carousel was never going to be anything but a clubhouse debacle. The only guy who isn't being paid like a star is the actual star, and the other three had to fight for spots they all believe they should have. It's not about being on the same page -- it's about the career of a baseball player being over in the life cycle of a housefly, and the inescapable and perpetual feeling that time is running out, and that every game not started is a game closer to the last game, when a player is spit out of the only thing he's ever known. I'd be pissed if I were on the bench, too. And there's no way Mattingly is going to be the good guy in the clubhouse.
Just like last year, injuries saved Mattingly from a year's worth of tough decisions. Except, there's a new wrinkle. Scott Van Slyke is having a tremendous season, earning his way into starts against left-handers, which means more bench time for two of the outfielders, possibly while Van Slyke slowly regresses to expectations. Still, if you're looking for a tough starting point, note that "Here are four multi-million-dollar outfielders, you figure it out" is sneaky tough, especially when it's possible that three of them aren't good anymore.
Second, the Dodgers have the most expensive bullpen in history, but bullpens are drifters you pick up on the side of a highway. Maybe they'll take you on an adventure and share with you some wisdom you were never going to find on your own, or maybe they'll stab you in the neck. Most of them will probably stab you in the neck. Paying a bunch of ex-closers to make up a super bullpen is like paying a drifter-recruiting agency a commission for a promise of really nice and vetted drifters. You're probably still getting stabbed in the neck. Yet when bullpens falter, the manager takes the blame.
Third, baseball happens. It happens to everyone. Why is Adrian Gonzalez slumping? Baseball. Why isn't Hanley Ramirez hitting at the same rate he was last year? Baseball. What happened to Dee Gordon's hot start? Where did Andre Ethier's talent go? Why is Matt Kemp struggling? What's up with Kenley Jansen allowing earned runs? The answer is the same for all of them. Baseball. Why is Carl Crawford hurt? Why is A.J. Ellis hurt? Why is Alex Guerrero missing an ear?
Wait, that last one isn't baseball. But the rest are. And if you're Mattingly, you can't open and close every post-game interview with, "That's baseball, innit?" That might be the correct answer. That's not the answer you're expected to give.
Now, here's the point where we bring up the obvious: The Dodgers can still have a successful year. They're in much better shape than they were last year at this time, so they don't need to pull off an all-time run to get back to the top of the NL. There's time, and there's talent. They're one of five teams with an OPS+ and ERA+ above the league average (A's, Giants, Tigers, Blue Jays), and they have the depth to stay there. This is a good team. There's a chance that Mattingly navigates the treacherous season and makes it to the playoffs again.
His reward? Three or four rounds of playoffs, where anything other than a series win is a complete failure. The playoffs are where Pete Kozmas become heroes and Clayton Kershaws become goats. Kershaw's ERA in four NLCS appearances: 7.23. What's Mattingly supposed to do when that happens? If he can't avoid that, though, his job will be in jeopardy.
Expecting baseball teams to win everything is silly. Putting them in a good position to win everything? Not silly. Defining the season as a failure if it doesn't happen? Silly.
This is a team that's supposed to win everything.
You don't feel sorry for Don Mattingly. He has a roster that most managers covet and if something goes wrong in July, his team won't be shy about acquiring reinforcements. But, man, what an impossible set of expectations. There's nothing lonelier than being the skipper of a team where the Venn diagram of "failure" and "what's probably going to happen because that's how baseball works" is almost a whole circle.
I guess I don't feel sorry for Mattingly, either. But I don't envy him. Not in the slightest.