Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly watches during a baseball...

Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly watches during a baseball spring training workout in Phoenix. (Feb. 22, 2012) Credit: AP

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Surrounded by the daily scrum of Dodgers media, Don Mattingly still pounds his fist into his glove as he speaks, still covers his eyes with the same Kaenon shades and still cracks a joke or two before the interview session begins.

In Year 2 as manager of the Dodgers, he's the same "Donnie Baseball," with the same mannerisms and routines. And yet something is noticeably different.

"The biggest thing," Mattingly says, pausing and taking an easy, relaxed breath -- a rarity during a chaotic 2011 season -- "is just being settled."

A year ago, Mattingly was thrust into disarray at Chavez Ravine. A messy divorce between Frank and Jamie McCourt led to a dispute over ownership of the Dodgers. In June, revelations from the divorce case led to the team's filing for bankruptcy.

Early struggles and injuries made the Dodgers an afterthought in the NL West by June, and 2011 had the makings of a bad season in Los Angeles. But with the help of MVP runner-up Matt Kemp and Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, Mattingly's business-casual demeanor helped lead the Dodgers to a 25-10 finish and 82 wins.

"It's a leadership position," said Mattingly, the former MVP first baseman still beloved by Yankees fans. "Guys know baseball. There's a zillion guys that can run a game, there really is. But so much is communication."

The McCourt divorce questions have subsided, and so too have most doubts about Mattingly's managerial prowess. Thanks to the cleared air and the strong finish, Mattingly can focus on what he sees as a bright 2012.

The Dodgers re-signed Kemp long-term in the offseason and still have their core of All-Stars to go with promising young talent.

Despite the obvious loyalty from those players, Mattingly shrugs off the label of being a "players' manager," saying, "I don't have their backs if they don't play the game right."

But to first baseman James Loney, the Mattingly way is simple: "Work hard, have fun. That's it."

There may be no better example of Mattingly's calming influence than Loney, who -- like the team -- slumped for the first four months of the 2011 season.

"When we were struggling, he was fighting for us," said Loney, who raised his average more than 30 points in August and September. "He knew we were better than the way we played early. Then, once we started playing better at the end, he was like, 'Yeah, that's the team I know.' "

Among the things Mattingly said he learned from his first season were proper handling of a pitching staff, how to deal with upper management and how to read different players' body language in the clubhouse.

But he's the first to say he's no expert. That will come only with time, he says.

"It's one of those Catch-22s," Mattingly says. "You don't get the experience unless you do it."

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