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.