Don Mattingly gets experience in AFL

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- For the only active major league manager ever to manage in the Arizona Fall League, the end wasn't as much of a relief as he might have expected.

"I expected to be relieved," Don Mattingly said, just before his Phoenix Desert Dogs played their seven-inning finale against the Surprise Rafters on Thursday. "I'm ready to get home, just because I have a lot of stuff going on. More than anything, I just need to mentally shut it down a little bit because I have been grinding every day, every day, every day.

"But I'm not feeling beat up by any means, and these last 10 days, our club has started playing really well. But that's the way it goes, I guess."

The Desert Dogs' 3-3 tie that afternoon left them with an 11-17 record and a last-place finish in the three-team East Division. Not that it mattered much, because the AFL is a developmental league, and not reaching Saturday's championship game allowed Mattingly to fly home to Evansville, Ind., and jump into preparations for his Dec. 10 wedding.

After that, Mattingly will focus on his new job as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers -- not that he has ever really stopped focusing on it since he was named to the position at a crowded Dodger Stadium news conference Sept. 30.

Mattingly's AFL obligation, a commitment he made long before Joe Torre retired and passed on the job as Dodgers manager to his longtime understudy, meant the Dodgers' annual organizational meetings basically had to come to him. General manager Ned Colletti made several trips to the AFL this fall, and several coaches, including Rick Honeycutt, Tim Wallach and Trey Hillman, have been in at least a couple of times.

With the majority of AFL games played in the daytime, Mattingly was free to meet with Colletti and those coaches at night. Although Mattingly is following Torre's longstanding tradition of skipping the winter meetings -- his wedding in Evansville is the day after the conclusion of those meetings in Orlando, Fla., so he has a good excuse -- Mattingly also plans to attend a big chunk of the Dodgers' annual winter-development program, a two-week camp in January at Dodger Stadium for top prospects and any major league players who choose to attend.

Mattingly also has gotten a good, long look at several of the Dodgers' top prospects, those who were sent to the AFL. Although the Desert Dogs included players from five different organizations, Mattingly admitted he had paid extra attention to the Dodgers' players, most of whom are at least a year away from the majors. As a result, he will go to spring training with a much clearer idea of those players and their skill sets.

"I'll have a better understanding of who they are and what they do before I get to see them for six weeks," Mattingly said.

He singled out a handful of the Dodgers' prospects who have impressed him in the AFL, making a point to mention outfielders Trayvon Robinson and Jerry Sands and infielder Ivan De Jesus Jr. -- three non-pitchers.

Mattingly was the Dodgers' hitting coach for the past 2 1/2 seasons and a sweet-swinging first baseman for the New York Yankees for 14 years, so his instinct still is to notice position players. But he has made a point during the AFL season to become more familiar with pitchers and their routines.

"I have more of a relationship with those guys now," he said. "I have seen all their flat grounds. I have seen them do touch-and-feels. I have a better understanding of what that is when somebody says they're going to do a touch-and-feel. I didn't realize some guys throw every day. Just from watching their whole program, it gives you a different perspective."

Other than the uniforms, which are the big league jerseys and pants of each player's organization, the AFL bears no resemblance to the major leagues. At times, the AFL can be a logistical nightmare, with each player's organization dictating how often and at what position he can play.

But Mattingly says the AFL experience will help him.

"It has been good from a lot of different standpoints," he said. "You're not trying to match up and stuff like that. But you are doing a lot of the things you need to do [as a major league manager]."

Torre's schedule has kept him from visiting Mattingly in Arizona, but the two have stayed in close contact, and even if Torre doesn't remain in the Dodgers' fold -- at last check, he hadn't told Colletti what his plans were -- he and Mattingly presumably will continue to speak often.

If the past six weeks have done nothing else for Mattingly, they have given him a sense of readiness to take on the challenge that awaits him next spring.

"I talked to Joe [Wednesday] night and told him how much I was enjoying this," Mattingly said. "The last couple of weeks have been different. I have just gotten a lot more comfortable with it, just sort of seeing it and doing it and not having to think too much about it."

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