LOS ANGELES -- I had a chance to talk to Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson about six months before he died, his health declining steeply by the spring of 2010. He had a moment of clarity when I asked him about managing players, one generation to the next. He had kept in touch with Mike Scioscia, a neighbor, among other working managers.
He said he used to stand up in front of his teams every spring.
"I'd say, 'Take a good look here. There's one king in this room, and you're looking at him,'" Anderson said. "'It's now, tomorrow and it always will be.'"
Can you imagine that scene playing out in some camp in Arizona or Florida nowadays? Neither could Anderson.
"I think we have allowed it to change," he said.
Baseball has allowed its culture to change so dramatically over the past 15 years or so, you'd hardly recognize it. It has allowed its hierarchy to be inverted by paying players 80 times what the president of the United States makes by giving them no-trade clauses and trips on the corporate jet.
Owners are increasingly beholden to players and their agents, because if they lose them, they could be watching hundreds of millions of their dollars circling down the drain. If they lose a manager, they've lost a manager.
It has changed so dramatically that, when Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said he thought his underperforming team needed to fight a little harder, it was as if the earth had trembled. National columnists chimed in. People wondered if it was another sign Mattingly was about to get fired. Or, did it mean he was trying to get himself fired?
Good God. He gave his opinion, a tepidly critical one.
A generation ago, Tommy Lasorda said of Darryl Strawberry, "He's not a dog; a dog is loyal and runs after balls," and of Scioscia, "If he raced his pregnant wife, he'd finish third," and nobody blinked. Now, Mattingly has the audacity to bench Andre Ethier for one game and say he wanted a lineup that was "going to fight," and it's as if he slapped the pope.
To his credit, Mattingly didn't give an inch Friday, even after 48 hours to stew it over and, doubtless, hours of consultation with the Dodgers' many image makers.
Mattingly says he wasn't criticizing, only laying out his vision for the way baseball should be played and the way it, too often, hasn't been played by his team. He got emotional at times during his 29-minute discussion with the media before Friday's 7-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. If this fight turns out to be Mattingly's last -- and it just might -- he's going out as himself. This fight means something to him. Guys like Graig Nettles, Lou Piniella, Bobby Murcer and Goose Gossage taught him how to behave through the grind and the grist of baseball's painful half-year march. He's not going to watch that legacy squandered in front of his eyes.
In fact, instilling that drive is why, he said, he wanted to become a manager. He made about $30 million in his playing career, so he probably isn't traveling the country reading about his supposed impending firing just for the money.
Friday, he spoke in lyrical terms. He equated playing hard to appreciating the beauty of the game. In the opinion of Mattingly and players like him, if you're not doing that, then you're scraping a Sharpie across a Van Gogh.
"To me, it's about respect to the game, it's respect to your teammates, it's respect to the organization and to the fans," Mattingly said. "The guys in that room, they know who they are. Guys who play the game right, they're not worried. They don't have any problem with anything I was saying. I can't even come close to backing off anything I said the other day."
To his credit, Ethier seemed to be taking Mattingly's shot as a teachable moment, at least publicly. He said he approached a couple of teammates to ask if they thought he came across as not particularly gritty.
Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Ethier is more the rule than the exception. Mattingly has an uphill fight. General manager Ned Colletti recognizes it. Team president Stan Kasten recognizes it. If you've watched a game, you probably would nod your head right along with them. Ethier, Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez are some of the most talented players in the game, each of them a stylish, professional player, but not exactly a guy you fear coming spikes-first into second base.
People criticized Bryce Harper for going face-first into a fence here the other day. Would you rather watch somebody glide back, watch it sail over his head, plant himself five feet short of the warning track and play it off the wall? What's that, you say you've seen Ethier do that dozens of times?
So are you really going to grudge Mattingly for saying what you've been thinking all these years?