Don Mattingly ready for his chance

LOS ANGELES -- He's been around the Los Angeles Dodgers' clubhouse for a few years now, and before that he was "Donnie Baseball," so he's anything but a newbie.

Still, it's going to take Don Mattingly some time to get used to the feel of the manager's chair.

Wednesday was the first day he could have taken his new seat as a large group of reporters gathered to hear his first public comments of the new year. But instead of sitting atop the bench in the Dodgers' dugout, Mattingly pulled up short, found a comfortable spot to lean along the railing, and watched a group of the Dodgers' young prospects take ground balls on the field as he spoke.

He seemed comfortable on his feet and in his own skin; this is an opportunity he has waited for a long time. Long enough to feel ready to know how to do the job. And maybe, more important, long enough to feel ready for the parts of the job he'll have to grow into.

"As a player, you know that clock's running," he explains. "But every coach will get better, you just have to give it enough time.

"As a person I get more mature, I've dealt with more things. It really makes me feel prepared to deal with a lot of situations and a lot of guys. I know there's going to be stuff that comes up. In my life or in the game. Stuff just happens. But I feel like I can deal with it. I feel ready."

Joe Torre has guided him and given him as smooth a handoff as any rookie manager could ever ask. General manager Ned Colletti has looked out for him and helped him get his bearings. Countless other friends had reached out with advice.

But mostly Mattingly has just been following his instincts. As a player, he was known as a scrappy, tireless worker. He intends to take the same approach as a manager.

"I've just been about moving forward," Mattingly said. "As soon as I knew that I was going to have a chance this year, it's just been about preparing. Preparation, preparation, preparation. For where we're going, how we want to play.

"I took about six days off and went to St. Lucia [on his honeymoon], which was nice. I didn't do anything. I knew that you have to let it go and let things just kind of digest.

"I mean, I knew what was going on and I continued to talk to Ned throughout the wedding and the honeymoon and the holidays. But really I just kind of turned it off mentally. I knew it would come back, that [the down time] wouldn't last long after the new year. It always starts creeping and you start thinking and twisting and then you're right back in it."

His biggest challenge this year -- besides resurrecting a team that fell woefully flat last season -- may be in finding the right balance between managing the team and being the manager.

"I feel like I know what's going on out here," he said, gesturing to the playing field. "This is what I really know how to do. I just have to get a handle on everything else that goes along with this job, which I know is more."

To do that, or rather to do that well, he says he wanted to surround himself with a staff that he respected and trusted.

Instead of surrounding himself with sycophants and old buddies, Mattingly hired veterans with more experience in the dugout than he has. He hired guys who had been managers before (Trey Hillman and Davey Lopes). He even hired the runner-up (Tim Wallach) for the job he landed.

There are two reasons why a young manager might choose a staff the way Mattingly has: He is either overwhelmed by the enormity of his new responsibilities, or so confident in himself and his ability to do the job, the thought of being usurped or undermined by the older, wiser men doesn't bother or occur to him.

For Mattingly, the answer is pretty simple. Mattingly already has been the apprentice. This is his time to start creating and discovering his own managerial style.

"I'm confident," he said. "I don't want to say that in a bad way. I feel ready. But more than anything, I just want to have the best people around. There's so much work to be done. There's no chance I can be going through [everything] with every hitter or doing this and that. So that's why I want the best group we can possibly have."

Take Davey Lopes, a Dodgers legend who managed the Milwaukee Brewers for three seasons but has since found a niche as a first base coach and baserunning guru.

Though they knew each other, they spoke very little during the hiring process.

"I'm really just concerned with what Davey brings to the table as far as us being a better baserunning team," Mattingly said.

"He's pretty much been the best and that's why it's a great feeling that he's here. Knowing that he's going to be in charge of that is a great feeling."

On Thursday night, Mattingly sat in a luxury suite at the Los Angeles Kings hockey game. He had dropped the ceremonial puck at center ice before the game, and seemed to enjoy spending time with the Dodgers' top prospects away from the field.

Many of the players invited to the team's annual winter development camp are several years away from the major leagues. Some are still teenagers. All of them seemed wide-eyed when they took the field at Dodger Stadium.

Though he took a major league field 1,785 times during his 14-year playing career, Mattingly had an easy rapport with them. They aren't the only ones with something to prove.

The Dodgers underachieved last season with Torre, a likely first-ballot Hall of Fame manager, and didn't make many major personnel changes in the offseason. Meanwhile, their hated rivals, the San Francisco Giants, won the World Series.

The division has gotten tougher. The Dodgers still need to.

In other words, Mattingly has his work cut out for him.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since 2000, 27 managers have opened a season never having managed before. Of those 27, 12 had winning records and their combined winning percetage was .487.

"Look, you know if you're good, you're going to eventually get your shot," he said. "If you have confidence in yourself and your preparation, you will make the most of your chances."

Mattingly finally has his. He says he feels ready. Now we'll find out if he is.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.