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Don Mattingly likes the pressure of managing the Dodgers

Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly looks on

Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly looks on before a game against the New York Mets on Saturday, July 25, 2015, at Citi Field. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Don Mattingly stood at home plate, wearing pinstripes and a Yankees hat, when George Steinbrenner walked by.

It was spring training in 1985, and Mattingly, the 1984 American League batting champion, was rehabbing from knee surgery.

Yet there he was, near the batter's box. But the pinstripes he wore weren't on a Yankees uniform. They were on an all-white suit and necktie. The bat he held wasn't in the upright position, the way it would be in his crouched batting stance. It was across his waist like a machine gun. And the person he faced on the mound wasn't a pitcher preparing to deliver a fastball. It was a cameraman.

Mattingly was in the middle of a photo shoot for what would become his famous Mafioso-like "Hit Man" Converse poster.

"Steinbrenner was walking by as they were finishing it," Mattingly, now the Dodgers' manager, said Thursday after being shown the poster at Citi Field. "He thought it was weird."

What's becoming less and less weird with each passing season is the sight of Mattingly out of pinstripes. He was in the prime of his 14-year Yankees career when that photo was taken, just a few months away from winning the American League MVP award. But now in his fifth season as manager, Mattingly looks as natural in Dodger blue as he did in Yankee pinstripes.

"Managing is definitely different because you don't have any true control," he said. "You're making decisions and you're trying to put guys in the best positions, and you affect it in some way. But as a player, you have a chance to make something happen. There's probably more pressure as a manager because you have less control."

The pressure certainly is on for the 54-year-old Mattingly. The Dodgers' star-studded roster is accompanied by a big price tag and bigger expectations. His team has the highest payroll in baseball, opening the season at about $270 million. His pitching rotation has the best 1-2 punch in the league with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, both currently in the midst of lengthy scoreless- inning streaks. His front office has a free-spending, win-now mentality and likely won't tolerate failing to reach the World Series much longer.

"I think you always feel pressure to win, and that's a good thing," Mattingly said. "You put pressure on yourself to perform well as a player and you put pressure on yourself to have your team perform the best they can as a manager."

Mattingly's playing career ended after the American League Division Series in 1995, his only playoff appearance. Ken Griffey Jr. slid home safely for an extra-inning walk-off win in the deciding Game 5 as the Seattle Mariners rallied from an 0-2 series deficit to advance to the AL Championship Series.

Many thought that Mattingly stopped playing because of his ailing back but, he said, it was really to be with his family. He said the biggest regret he has about his playing career is that he didn't move his three sons from Evansville, Indiana, to New York to raise them there year-round.

"That's really the reason I retired," Mattingly said. "A lot of people say it was my back. I wanted to be around my kids. I still loved playing and I was still an OK player. But I couldn't live with myself if I kept playing and all of a sudden my boys were in high school and I didn't get a chance to see them."

The year after Mattingly stopped playing, the Yankees won the World Series. With that in mind, he was asked if having his family in New York would have extended his playing career.

"Definitely," he replied. "That's the one thing I regret more than anything. But there's not a whole lot I would change. If you could rewrite the script, obviously I'd like to go to the playoffs and win a couple of World Series."

Now he has a chance to do so with the Dodgers, who entered Saturday night's game against the Mets in first place in the NL West at 56-42, the fifth-best record in the majors.

For Mattingly, who guided the Dodgers to the NLDS in 2014 and NLCS in 2013, winning a title as a manager could help alleviate the disappointment of not doing so as a player. "I want to win no matter where I'm at," he said. "Any city I would be playing or managing in, you play to win every day."

Mattingly recalled how, during his playing days, Steinbrenner was the first to tell him that he'd make a good manager. But he was passed over by the Yankees -- who after the 2007 season named Joe Girardi the successor to Joe Torre over Mattingly, the Yankees' bench coach at the time. He followed Torre to Los Angeles and ultimately succeeded him there.

But the reminders of "Donnie Baseball" in New York remain, from the highlights of his dramatic postseason home run, to his retired number in Monument Park, to those "Hit Man" posters.

"I'm really proud of everything that happened when I was in New York," Mattingly said. "I enjoyed my time wearing pinstripes."

Whether on his uniform or on his suit.


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