Don Mattingly still hasn't reached Series, and expectations are growing
Don Mattingly's 14-year quest to actually play in a World Series ended a few rounds short. The Yankees, the most frequent visitor to the Fall Classic in the history of the game, were unable to get Donnie Baseball there, and his dream unofficially died on the artificial-turf floor of the Kingdome during a wild Division Series in 1995.
Mattingly never played again and retired in January 1997, but in moving on to the coaching and managerial ranks, he began another Quixote-like journey to make the World Series. That he has yet to get that far seems extremely unlucky, or if you believe in such things, just not destined to do so.
The latest chapter concluded Friday night as Mattingly's Dodgers were shut out by the Cardinals, 9-0, in Game 6 of the NLCS at Busch Stadium. The loss in itself was not shocking, but the way that it happened was, with Clayton Kershaw -- this year's Cy Young Award favorite -- not nearly at his best with the Dodgers facing elimination.
There was Hanley Ramirez struggling to defend his position with broken ribs, and Yasiel Puig's circus act in rightfield. But ultimately, the Cardinals' pitching prevailed, and Mattingly -- armed with the fragments of a $230-million payroll -- couldn't coax enough out of this roster for another round.
"It's disappointing because of all the work you put in from last winter,'' Mattingly said, "and planning and trying to put a club together that has some depth. Going through the spring, the long season, and then it just comes to a crash.
"We put a lot of time in. The players put a lot of time in, and that's what you play for -- to make that next step.''
In looking back, it's incredible how Mattingly has missed out on the World Series. He got his first Bronx call-up in 1982, the season after the Yankees lost to the Dodgers in the Fall Classic. What followed was the longest playoff drought since the franchise was called the Highlanders, and it took the debut of the wild card for Mattingly to finally play in the postseason.
But as soon as he stopped playing, the Yankees won it all in 1996 -- their first title in 18 years -- and collected four rings in five seasons.
After they lost the 2003 World Series to the Marlins, Mattingly returned as the hitting coach under Joe Torre but left four years later when Torre bolted for the Dodgers. With Mattingly as Torre's bench coach in Los Angeles, Joe Girardi led the Yankees to title No. 27 in 2009.
It was an unfortunate coincidence for Mattingly that his time in the Bronx just happened to be during the Yankees' most disappointing seasons. And now his future with the Dodgers will be measured against the performance of the highest payroll in the game. Mattingly knows something about that, having played and coached during George Steinbrenner's reign. But it doesn't appear that falling short this October will cost him his job.
The Dodgers hold an option on Mattingly for 2014 and reportedly intend to bring him back. But the length of the commitment appears to be up in the air.
It was only four months ago that Mattingly seemed to be a goner, with the Dodgers laboring in last place, 9 1/2 games out. But what looked to be a dysfunctional team on the verge of total collapse rallied to win 42 of the next 50, cruised to the NL West title and got Mattingly to the playoffs for the first time in his three years as manager.
That should have answered any lingering questions about Mattingly's ability to lead the Dodgers. But some second-guessing of his strategic moves popped up again during the playoffs, right down to Friday's final loss in St. Louis.
The decision to stick with an obviously hurting Ramirez -- who wasn't in the original lineup but was added a half-hour before the first pitch -- was among them as he was unable to even knock down some reachable grounders during Cardinals rallies. Ramirez didn't do much with the bat, either, hitting .133 (2-for-15) in the series while in obvious pain with a hairline fracture of a rib.
"You're just trying to win every day and you trust your guys that there's a way to win,'' Mattingly said afterward. "With Hanley not swinging well, there's other guys that can get a hit.''
Mattingly also had his hands full with the volatile Puig, an amazing talent whose hyper-emotional approach to the game may have resulted in a lack of focus at times. While Puig's antics were a source of amusement in Dodger wins -- such as his premature homer-turned-triple celebration in Game 3 -- two of his misplays in Game 6 were not quite as funny.
Mattingly hinted that harnessing Puig's explosive ability may be a challenge going forward.
"It's what we've kind of watched all year long,'' Mattingly said. "It's like you don't have time to work on it, really. You kind of go over it and you try to teach. You just continue to try to teach. Yasiel gets excited. But we've got to do a better job, I think, of helping him to mature and understand what we want done and the way to do it.''
The Dodgers' ownership group, which purchased the franchise for $2 billion, has made it clear that money will be no object as it tries to get this team to the World Series for the first time since 1988.
Whether that will happen with Mattingly remains to be seen. But with that type of investment, the expectations have never been higher -- not even in the Bronx -- and that means he won't have the next decade or so to finish what the Dodgers were unable to do this October.