LOS ANGELES – Don Mattingly has an easygoing disposition, the comfortable aura of a man who chooses to spend his free time mucking stables on his Indiana horse farm. You get the feeling he’s content living in his own skin. Amid turmoil, he wears a gentle smile.
But over the decades, his bosses have found that he can be dangerous when cornered.
Of all the ways to contextualize Mattingly’s pointed words about his contract situation at what started out as a routine end-of-season news conference Monday -- comments that blindsided the Dodgers’ front office -- thinking back to Mattingly’s playing days clears it up best. We don’t really have to make that link, because Mattingly did it for us.
“I played in New York and there was talk of trading me at one point and, even though I loved playing there, it’s like I always had that confidence in myself that, ‘I can play on any field, anywhere,’ so I don’t want to be anywhere people don’t think you’re capable of doing the job,” Mattingly said.
We don’t yet know whether the Dodgers’ owners think he’s capable of managing their team to its first World Series in 25 years. The team has yet to give a hint about whether it is going to extend Mattingly’s contract, fire him or somehow get him to walk away from the $1.4 million option for next season that has already vested.
Barring a leak, we might not know for a week or more. Teams are strongly discouraged by Major League Baseball from making major announcements while the World Series is underway and the Fall Classic begins tonight.
One thing we know is that Mattingly can be an outspoken critic of the people he works for if he feels he’s being treated poorly. He and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner used to keep the back-page headline writers at the tabloids on high alert.
-- It started in 1987, just Mattingly’s fifth full season. After he led the American League in hits, doubles, slugging and OPS the previous season, an arbitrator awarded him a record $1.975 million salary, prompting Steinbrenner to fume that Mattingly was the “most unproductive .300 hitter in baseball,” and that he now had to deliver a championship, as Reggie Jackson had.
“He’s like all the rest of 'em now,” Steinbrenner said. “He can’t play little Jack Armstrong of Evansville, Indiana any more.”
Mattingly’s response was to tell New York reporters how many unhappy players the team had under Steinbrenner, who asked for an apology and put him on the trading block. A rumored deal that had him going to the San Francisco Giants for Will Clark never happened and Mattingly and Steinbrenner made nice.
-- The most famous episode, thanks to "The Simpsons," came in 1991, when Steinbrenner ordered manager Stump Merrill to bench Mattingly unless he cut his hair. Mattingly questioned Merrill’s authority and, within two weeks, players were openly revolting. Merrill was fired at the end of the season, replaced by Buck Showalter.
In the Simpsons episode, Mr. Burns yells at Mattingly to “trim those sideburns!”
-- The bitterest dispute came toward the end of Mattingly’s playing career, in 1995, when a bad back had sapped much of his power. When Mattingly saw a certain reporter sitting in the owner’s box during a game, he had a good idea something was coming.
The next day, the back page of the New York Daily News carried the headline, “Done Don,” and it was filled with insinuations that Mattingly should retire. In an interview with Roy Firestone on ESPN not long thereafter, Mattingly said, “There is a time to move on, but I think there are ways to handle it, too. You just don’t kick a guy and spit on him and tell him to go on and get out the door.”
Nobody in the Dodgers’ ownership has done any of those things, but given his past experience, it's no surprise to see Mattingly sounding off.