Don Mattingly ready for big opportunity

On the final day of the 1987 season, on a cold, wet Sunday morning, Don Mattingly, the first baseman for the New York Yankees, was hitting early at Yankee Stadium. There was nothing to play for that day, no division title or batting title to be won, but there he was, just him hitting off a coach in the rain. When he was asked why he would do that, Mattingly said he had had some bad swings the day before "and I couldn't go home this winter swinging like that.''

That is Don Mattingly. That story is one of many that define him, that story is one of many that suggest he has a chance to be a good manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers starting in 2011.

We know Mattingly the player. He hit .307 lifetime with 222 home runs, made six All-Star teams, won nine Gold Gloves, won a batting title in 1984, won the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 1985 and, for a six-year period (1984-89), was one of the best players in the game. A back injury soon robbed him of his power, and perhaps a spot in the Hall of Fame. But Mattingly was so much more than just a great Yankee, he was the team leader, he was a manager's dream, a player who did more than just play.

"He knew the weight that his words carried,'' said former Yankees manager Buck Showalter, "so he was careful how he used them. He was never malicious, always pure of heart.''

Soon after outfielder/designated hitter Ruben Sierra joined the Yankees in 1995, he hit a home run and, typical of Sierra, he admired the ball flying through the air, then took a turn so wide before reaching first base, he could nearly high-five his teammates in the first-base dugout. As Sierra rounded the bases, Mattingly looked at his manager with a face that said: "I've got this.'' But instead of blasting Sierra in the dugout in front of his teammates, Mattingly took Sierra up the runway and explained that's not how Yankees celebrate a home run. He explained to Sierra that his slow trot around the bases might get a teammate thrown at, and possibly hurt, but Mattingly bashed him softly. Sierra grew to love Mattingly as a teammate.

There were countless examples of how Mattingly conducted himself as a member of the Yankees. And it all comes from his upbringing, an overachieving, skinny-necked kid from Evansville, Ind., a 19th-round draft choice who refused to believe he wasn't good enough to play in the big leagues. He strived for perfection every day, whatever he did wasn't good enough. Even after he became a star in the major leagues, he came to every spring training as though he was a fringe player, a bench guy just trying to make the team.

When he was a star, he never distanced himself from his teammates, as some stars are prone to do. When Yankees owner George Steinbrenner returned from his suspension from Major League Baseball in 1993, he wanted that return to be grandiose in every way. He wanted certain members of the Yankees to be a part of the procession on the field, but Mattingly refused, not out of a lack of respect for Steinbrenner, but because he thought he might lose the respect of his teammates if he was the only player following The Boss. So Mattingly agreed to celebrate Steinbrenner's return but insisted that it happen around the batting cage, where pregame work was being done not just by Mattingly, but all the players.

Such a work ethic, and a sense of team, will help Mattingly, 49, in his first year as a major league manager, which is about so much more than when to bunt and when to remove a pitcher. It's about dealing with players, about finding ways to motivate them, to get the best from them. Mattingly will be good at that because he'll try to save them all, he will not leave a player behind and he will not allow any of them to give in to mediocrity.

That, at times, will work against him as a manager. He will expect all players to care about the game, and respect the game, as much as he did. That simply isn't going to happen, not in this era of entitlement from players, especially with a Dodgers team that underperformed in 2009, a team that didn't play as hard as it should have.

"Donnie has an edge to him,'' said former Dodgers coach Larry Bowa. He will need it. He will not tolerate a player not giving his best, but he will get the best out of the players without embarrassing them publicly. Mattingly has values born in the Midwest, he's a common-sense guy, there is no L.A., no West Coast in him. He won't want any part of the Hollywood scene; there is no time for that given all the work he has to do with the Dodgers. That work has already begun. Mattingly managed in the Arizona Fall League the past six weeks.

Mattingly likely will be able to relate to most if not all his players -- the really talented ones because he was one of them, and the others on the downside of their careers because he was also once there. Late in his career, when his back had given out, he went to his manager and told him that he no longer deserved to hit the middle of the order. Then he went to the general manager and told him that he was no longer producing enough to be the first baseman for the Yankees and strongly urged the club to go find another first baseman.

Soon after, the Yankees made a trade for first baseman Tino Martinez, who won four World Series rings with the Yankees. Mattingly was perhaps the best Yankee to not win a ring, but his influence was felt everywhere in the organization. And now it will be felt everywhere within the Dodgers' organization.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.