We could have had Don Mattingly

I remember those days really well. It was a personal blow to lose Torre, who for some of us, was like the uncle figure to our Yankee universe. Others were happy to see him go. And as those days unfolded, the choice for the Yankees’ brain trust came down to Mattingly and Girardi. Personally, I don’t think Mattingly was ever strongly considered. Yes, he was a Yankee icon and hero and was billed as a tragic figure for never getting his ring and for losing his MVP-caliber career to back troubles. But he had no managerial experience and Girardi had won the Manager of the Year Award for his time leading the Miami Marlins. The choice may have been personally disappointing for fans who loved Mattingly, but it seemed a pretty clear-cut decision.

So Mattingly followed Joe Torre to the Dodgers and once Torre retired, inherited the job there. Last season brought no glaring triumphs in Mattingly’s first season in LA other than the emergence of Matt Kemp as a superstar. The Dodgers won only 82 games and were never a factor. But the reality is that a season over .500 in what was then a real mess in Los Angeles was a pretty decent outcome. And it seems to compare favorably to Joe Girardi’s first year as Yankees manager, the only year in recent memory when the Yankees finished out of the playoffs.

Just as Girardi’s team exploded in 2009 in that manager’s second season at the helm, Mattingly’s charges are roaring in the National League West in his second year as that team’s manager. And you like what you hear about Mattingly. The story has been told that he spoke to Andre Ethier after the last game of the season last year and told him that he needed to be more focused every day. Ethier has responded and is having as big a season as he has had in his career, right after Kemp did the same thing last year. Mattingly seems to be the same kind of player’s manager that Girardi is and to this observer, remains both of their greatest strengths. Both also have good coaches around them.

But who is to say how Mattingly would have performed in New York? An ex-superstar managing his former team can sometimes bomb spectacularly. One need only remember what happened to Alan Trammell in Detroit. Despite the fact that the Tigers’ struggles during those years were due to a lack of talent, it did manage to tarnish a bit of Trammell’s luster in that fan base. Would the same thing have happened to Mattingly in New York if say, like Girardi, his team had failed to get by the Tigers last season in the playoffs? Maybe.

I seem to remember Mattingly going through some family troubles during the time directly after the Yankees decided not to choose him. I cannot remember if those memories are accurate and a Google searched failed me. But I think I remember that right. How would Mattingly have handled 2008 during that personal crisis? Those “what if” kinds of questions really have no answers.

The problem, of course, as mentioned in that Girardi piece I wrote here, is that it seems impossible to measure how well a manager affects a team’s won-loss record. The players, the front office, injuries and pure, darned luck have a lot to say in how things turn out. As part of a fan base that worshiped at the alter of Don Mattingly, it is difficult seeing him succeed for an organization that is not in New York. Mattingly had the kind of reputation around baseball that Derek Jeter has now. But would he have been a better fit for the Yankees than Girardi? We will never know. My sneaking suspicion is that it would not have made that much difference at all. But that’s just one man’s opinion.

About William Tasker

William Tasker grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey but has lived in New England since 1975 and in the far reaches of northern Maine since 1990. Tasker is the author of nine (non-baseball related) books and, besides writing here for three years, has written for his own site at www.passion4baseball.blogspot.com since 2003.

12 thoughts on “We could have had Don Mattingly

  1. I seem to recall back when Mattingly was serving as an assistant to Torre, he got the chance to manage a game. I remember in the first inning, with a man on first, he ordered Jeter to lay down a sac bunt. I knew then and there that I never wanted Donnie Baseball managing the Yankees. Of course, Joe Girardi is also a frequent perpetrator of over-managing.

    Honestly, I suspect most managers stink, with too many sac bunts, intentional walks, and simple minded adherence to the save rule being the most common sins. I doubt many managers get anywhere near the maximum possible return from their given talent. There are probably hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people out there who would be better than your typical big league manager when it comes to making managerial decisions. However, it's the rare man who can command a big league locker room, and if you can't do that, you can't manage. That whittles down the pool of candidates enormously, and we're left with guys like Ron Washington, Jim Leyland, Ozzie Guillen and yes, Joe Girardi.

  2. Joe Girardi is an excellent manager. Donnie Baseball — like Lou Pinella — is an excellent hitting coach who is not that adept at handling pitchers. Joe Torre's shelf life expired sometime in 2003.

  3. Thanks for this article Will. Still love Donnie Baseball and he will forever be my favorite player. I still remember the home run in the 1995 ALDS Game 2. The call by Gary Thorne still send chills up my spine:

    "This one by Mattingly, oh hang onto the roof, good bye! Homerun! Don Mattingly!"

    I don't think I've ever seen the stadium rock so hard as for that home run. It was unbelievable. One of the best memories I have of watching Yankee games with my Dad when I still lived in NJ.

    I still believe he is one of the best players to never win a World Series. At least one of the best Yankees.

  4. Nice article Will. I also want to point out a darkhorse candidate along with Mattingly and Girardi: current bench coach Tony Pena. I thought Pena also had a chance to manage due to his credentials with Royals and even winning an award in 2003, marking a 21 game improvement from the previous year. (Intereestingly, no pitcher won more than 10 games).

    I don't remember when, but I remember few seasons ago (2009?) when Yankees were on a losing streak and people were ranting about firing Girardi. Brian Cashman visited the clubhouse and the next day Girardi got ejected while the Yankees were getting owned. Tony Pena then managed and the Yankees came back to win the game. Afterwards, if i recall the team was winning a lot of games.

    Not saying that Pena should've been the manager, but we all seem to forget about the assistant manager.

  5. Let's see what happens with Donnie Baseball now that Matt Kemp is going to miss serious time with a blown hamstring. If the Dodgers stay this hot without Kemp, then you have to give him his due. But I'll reserve judgment for the time being. While some of his decisions will drive you up a wall, the bottom line is Girardi's a better manager than Mattingly and has done as good a job as you can after replacing a quasi-legend in Joe Torre.

  6. I cant get too worked up about girardi these days and going forward…. i like the way he handles the bullpen in the regular season (not the postseason so far)… dont care bout his relationships with the media… and i like that he doesnt let his overmanaging spill over into creating a new lineup every day…

    If we're being totally honest, and not to bring up bad memories… but Girardi really only has 3 screwups…

    1. Game 3 of the 2009 ALCS…. no need to say more u know what im talking about
    2. Batting posada 9th (ok) for the first time against the red sox in a nationally televised game (not ok)
    3. Forcing his "ace" to intentionally walk sean rodriguez in the 1st inning of the season, yes, it did happen.

    give him credit for the bullpen, not being loose lipped with the media… how he handled jeter early 2011… how he continues to handle teixiera.. and for his overall passion

    • Not really sure what you’re referring to in 1), actually, because I don’t remember anything noteworthy about that game. He made a weird pitching change in game 5 of that series and, IMO, made a really bad decision not to bring in Mo to keep Game 3 of the 2010 ALCS within striking distance, so I assume you meant one of those?

    • And, of course, Torre had way more than 3 screwups. Some of the more memorable: (1) leaving Jeff Weaver in during the 2003 WS, (2) batting A-Rod 8th in 2006, (3) not pulling the team off the field during the Lake Erie Midge Invasion, (4) laying waste to the careers of a host of relievers, including Sturze, Proctor and Quantrill.

  7. Great piece and worth pondering.

    Mattingly's ascension hasn't been stellar though as he's had in-game flubs in his first two seasons that would have been HUGE if they were made in the Bronx and possibly stemmed from his lack of familiarity with National League play. SoCal may be easy peezy but in NY he'd have been crucified. Girardi has impressed me more this season than in any previous year managing the Yankees. The ring he won came after the team signed the #1, 2 and 3 free agents on the market. In 2012 thanks to injuries he's had to scramble and mix things up. The lineup has frequently looked like it was held together with duct tape — and it has worked.

    Love Torre though I ultimately did — he was no maestro with handling pitchers either.