GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There were plenty of skeptics, and I have to admit, I was one of them. At the time, I was among those who thought Tim Wallach would have been a better choice to manage the Los Angeles Dodgers. What we quickly found out, though, was that all that skepticism and second-guessing was moot, because Don Mattingly's contract as hitting coach had stated all along that he one day would succeed Joe Torre as manager.
A year and a half later, my skepticism has subsided. I'm still not sure Wallach would have been the wrong guy. But it has pretty much crystalized now that Mattingly was most definitely the right guy, and at the right time, too.
Mattingly spent much of his morning media session Saturday reflecting on his first year, and talking about how differently he feels in his second spring training as the man in charge. He spoke of how much more comfortable he is now. For those of us who are around him every day, the difference, the evolution, is palpable. Although he always was a friendly, cooperative sort, he now appears visibly at ease, relaxed even, with reporters around.
It is open to debate whether Mattingly's rookie season was successful. Those who measure success in nothing but wins and losses will point to the fact the Dodgers failed to make the playoffs for the second year in a row. Others can point to the fact that even after getting off to a miserable start, the Dodgers rallied, won 44 of their final 71 games and finished with a winning record.
However, I'm not going with any of that. I'm going with the less quantitative stuff. I'm going with the fact Mattingly clearly grew into the job, and that the players, almost to a man, bought totally into what he was selling.
Was he ready for the job on opening day? Who knows? But by the end of a season that could have been much worse, Mattingly was firmly in command of a club that had come to reflect his personality and style, that of playing the game the right way with a quiet, understated approach. A team that probably overachieved, despite the storm of turmoil going on around it.
A lot of teams would have quit, much the way the Dodgers had done in 2007 when things started heading south in early September. This team didn't. Its manager made sure of it.
And that might have been Mattingly's biggest contribution in his first season.
He is a players' manager. But only to a point. When asked about the perception that he always "has his players' backs," Mattingly was quick to qualify that premise.
"I like players in general," he said. "I have an understanding of what they go through. But I don't have their back if they're not playing the game the right way. I'm not going to do that, and I think they understand that. There is an expectation of the way we play. If they are doing everything right, then I will have their backs."
For Mattingly, that probably was the biggest transition. He was well-liked by the players when he served for 2 1/2 seasons as Torre's hitting coach, but once he took over the club, he also needed to be respected by them.
"They knew me in that role," Mattingly said. "Now, they know me in this one."
One handicap Mattingly had coming in was that he never had managed in the minors other than in the Arizona Fall League, which isn't really managing so much as organizing. It is a raging debate, whether a manager needs that minor league managerial experience. Some guys don't have it and succeed without it. Some guys get far more experience in the minors than they ever wanted waiting for the chance that never comes.
"I think I have overcome that for sure," Mattingly said. "But I think one thing you need (when lacking minor league experience) is to have experienced people around you. I feel like I have that here with Trey (Hillman) being my bench guy. Number one, we're friends, and we were friends before. This guy has been through a ton, all the way through the minor leagues to (managing) the Royals, and it isn't only managing. He has done the development part, the teaching part, managing in Japan."
Mattingly also talked about the value of Rick Honeycutt, an organizational fixture who has been the big league pitching coach since 2006, and Wallach, who despite not getting the job has been a loyal and invaluable member of Mattingly's staff as third-base coach. He mentioned the rest of his coaches, as well, the aged and wise Davey Lopes, the player-friendly Kenny Howell and the hitting coach, Dave Hansen, who appeared to be a big reason the team's moribund offense finally came to life after he took over midway through the season.
And that, Mattingly said, was the toughest moment of his rookie year as a manager, relieving hitting coach Jeff Pentland of his job and replacing him with Hansen, who had assisted Pentland all season.
"That coaching change wasn't comfortable at all," Mattingly said. "I love Pent, and I think he is really good at what he does. He has a ton of knowledge with the swing and how it works. It was tough, but somebody has to go if something is going badly, because you can't get rid of the players. It happened to us in New York, whenever they would fire the manager or the pitching coach or whoever it might be. I always knew in that situation that we had failed as players. We let somebody down. We took the blame, but somebody had to go.
"The change worked out OK. For some reason, we were a little better offensively (with Hansen). We picked up Juan (Rivera), and James (Loney) caught fire. Who knows why? But it was different after that."
With an ownership change on the horizon, it's tough to predict what other changes are coming. Will they be wholesale, or little more than tinkering? We can probably assume no major personnel moves will be made until after the season because of the timing of the sale, which is expected to be finalized about four weeks into the season. But what is evident to anyone who has been paying attention, I think, is that Mattingly has the right demeanor, the right approach and the right coaching staff to be successful in this job for a long time.
Successful in a quantitative sense, if he is given the type of team any manager needs in order to win. And successful in the sense of leading a group of young men with sometimes fragile egos, a group that is diverse both culturally and in terms of personality. It is a difficult job. But if there was any doubt around this time last year that Mattingly was up to it, it has all but disappeared.
In both his own mind and everybody else's.