Don Mattingly: quite a rookie season

The stadium club was crowded that day last September for a quickly thrown-together news conference. There were the reporters, most of them standing because there was no place left to sit, and there he was, seated at a table in the front of the room with all those cameras trained on him, the man who was about to be announced as the new manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The first question, as first questions tend to be at these things, was a softball.

"Are you ready?"

Don Mattingly, leaning into the microphone, didn't hesitate.

"I think I am," he said.

Shouldn't he have known that he was? Shouldn't he have been positively certain that this opportunity, which we learned that day the Dodgers were contractually obligated to give him when Joe Torre retired, wasn't coming too soon?

Really, though, how could he or anyone have known? General manager Ned Colletti was pretty sure, but did he really know? Did owner Frank McCourt know? Did Torre, Mattingly's longtime mentor, know? First-time managerial hirings are always done on a wing and a prayer, and that was exacerbated with Mattingly because, although he was about to begin a six-week stint in the Arizona Fall League, he had never managed in the minors.

But a year later, we all know.

"The bottom line is, he has done a really good job," said Davey Lopes, the Dodgers' first-base coach, who had never met Mattingly before being named to the rookie manager's staff. "I would say that if it wasn't for what happened in Arizona, he would deserve to at least be considered for manager of the year."

Don't be surprised if Mattingly's name shows up on a few of those ballots, which ask voters for their top three choices.

There are a lot of factors that go into the type of season a team has, the biggest being personnel. Most teams finish with win-loss records that are in line with their overall talent. But some teams underachieve, a fact that usually is blamed on their manager, and others overachieve.

The 2011 Dodgers will finish with a record just above the .500 mark, hardly something to celebrate. But consider the first half, when they were riddled with injuries to key players, some of whom never came back. Consider also where this team was July 6, a time of year when the weather is hot and miserable and the collective energy level tends to be at its lowest. The Dodgers were a season-worst 14 games below .500 that night, and their offense pretty much had been in deep freeze all season.

"I'm not sure how many teams there have been who have had high expectations, struggled for as long as we did and then picked it up the last two months of the season," Colletti said. "I think that is a huge component of the job he has done. That tells me that players believe in him, respect him and believe in the lessons he is trying to convey."

The Dodgers haven't gained much ground in the standings since July 6. But they have played at something close to a .600 clip, which is why for all the injuries, all the runners left in scoring position and all the bankruptcy hearings, this team will finish with a winning record.

And on a team that could produce a Cy Young Award winner and a Most Valuable Player, that turnaround ultimately might be Mattingly's biggest contribution as a first-year manager.

"His approach has a lot to do with it," said Clayton Kershaw, that potential Cy Young winner. "It has a lot to do with a manager's personality. Back when we were struggling, for him to come in every day and not remember what happened the day before, for him to have that personality, that has been awesome."

That calming approach was forged in Evansville, Ind., where Mattingly grew up. He still is far more a product of that small-city environment than of the 14 years he spent manning first base for the New York Yankees, who have since retired his jersey No. 23. Mattingly's approach is also one of his few managerial traits that mirror Torre, who never panicked and never let his players see even the slightest concern, no matter how bad things got.

Torre was able to bring the Dodgers back from the dead in 2008 to win the National League West, and Mattingly is perhaps the only reason this year's team didn't go into the tank when all postseason hope was lost.

"I think the biggest thing I knew coming in was that I couldn't be Joe," Mattingly said. "Joe was Joe, and he was going to handle things his way with his personality and his way of doing it. … But I do have that personality, that calm. I'm not a screamer. Hopefully, I try to communicate with the guys and let them know what I'm thinking. But I always knew I had to be myself."

Mattingly doesn't delegate as much as Torre did. Sure, he trusts his coaches and leaves them to run their parts of the team, but he admits that the old hitting coach in him still gets involved if he sees an issue with a player's swing. He sometimes watches bullpens. He sometimes stands behind the cage during batting practice alongside hitting coach Dave Hansen. He sometimes roams the outfield, talking to various players, gauging their pulse while they shag flies.

"I think he has been really good with the different personalities on the team and knowing how to deal with different guys in certain situations," Dodgers first baseman James Loney said. "He has been the same guy every day, no matter if you're going good or going bad."

Mattingly stuck with Loney through one of the worst slumps of his career and was rewarded by Loney's late-season offensive explosion.

"For me, he kept giving me a chance to go out there and keep playing," Loney said. "He believed in me, and he knew I could help this team."

One thing that has helped Mattingly, who turned 50 this year, is that his final season as a player was just 16 years ago. He remembers what it was to be a big league player, and he understands this generation of big league players. Torre understood that, too, but his overall coaching staff was much older than Mattingly's, even though there are a few holdovers. The generation gap often got in the way of the message.

With Mattingly, you get the sense that nothing is more important than the message and making sure it is delivered in no uncertain terms. It began with a couple of meetings in spring training in which he laid out what he expected, that everyone show up on time and play hard every day and not accept losing. And as the season was heading south early, he reiterated that message, imploring his club to keep fighting as though it had something to fight for. The result is this dramatic turnaround.

Mattingly is, above all, a communicator.

"For me, that part has been fairly easy," he said. "I know there have been a couple of guys who were mad at times with the way I used them. I tell them, 'I don't mind if you get mad.' I try to keep guys informed about what I'm doing and what I'm thinking and why I'm doing it. … I don't mind them being mad, because what that tells me is that they believe in themselves."

It would appear that Mattingly walked into a difficult situation that became impossible the day McCourt filed for bankruptcy on behalf of the club. That situation might not be resolved any time soon, and how that translates onto the field is anyone's guess. The Dodgers have enough young talent, and that talent proved itself enough in limited time this year to suggest this team could be pretty decent in 2012. If that happens, maybe we won't have to wait until the second half to see the Dodgers at their best.

A year after no one really knew, we no longer have to wait to see whether Mattingly is up to this job. Whatever doubts may have existed that day last September about Mattingly's readiness for this job -- even if a tiny fraction of those doubts were his own -- have been obliterated.

"I think people think we are a long way away, but we're not far away," he said. "I really believe that if we had stayed relatively healthy this year, we would be a lot closer than this. It didn't happen, but that's OK, because I love what I'm doing and I like the way this organization is going. I think we have a lot of good pieces.

"There is no reason for this club and for L.A. not to be able to continue to grow. We are a big-market club with a lot of good, young talent, guys who can play. For me, it's just a matter of making good decisions and being smart."

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.