NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Don Mattingly will be working with limited resources in a low-profile environment in his transition from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Miami Marlins. Based on Miami owner Jeffrey Loria’s history of paying managers he no longer employs, the drama quotient appears to be a wash.
When Mattingly tracks the meteorological trend in his career arc, it points increasingly toward an outerwear-free existence.
“I’ve been fortunate,” Mattingly said. “I went from New York to L.A. and now South Beach. The next stop is Cuba, I guess. I’m going warmer. I’m not going colder.”
It has been six weeks since Loria, acting definitively on his longtime Donnie Baseball man crush, hired Mattingly to a four-year contract to replace Dan Jennings, who followed Mike Redmond, who succeeded Ozzie Guillen, who followed … well, you get the idea. Loria has shown a penchant for falling in and out of love with people under his watch, and his relationship with Mattingly might be the ultimate test of his allegiance to personal favorites.
The Marlins took a step to enhance Mattingly’s comfort level when they brought in his friend and confidant Tim Wallach as Miami’s new bench coach. They also plunged headfirst into the grandest experiment of the offseason when they hired Barry Bonds as their chief hitting instructor.
Miami’s manager and lead hitting guru might set new standards for statistical credibility. Mattingly hit .307 for his career and made six All-Star teams before his back gave out on him. Bonds packed it in eight years ago with 762 homers and a career 1.051 OPS.
No one can deny that Bonds ranked among the smartest, most analytical and dedicated hitters in the game during his playing career, even if those positive attributes were overshadowed by his alleged PED use and prickly personality. But the hitting coach position involves a time commitment that’s decidedly unglamorous. Frank Menechino, who returns in 2016 as Miami’s assistant hitting coach, will handle a big chunk of the grunt work. But if Bonds wants to have a true impact and learn what buttons to push, he needs to be at the beck and call of his hitters. Is he willing to invest the same sweat equity in coaching that he spent on his 22-year playing career?
In recent years, George Brett, Jeff Bagwell and Dante Bichette were among the former big leaguers who came out of retirement to serve as hitting coaches and had an awakening. They all expressed surprise, to varying degrees, over the priorities of the modern-day hitter. At the risk of overgeneralizing, today’s young MLB hitter is conditioned to spending more time in the cage hacking away until his hands are raw and less time sitting back and debating two-strike approaches and the perpetual cat-and-mouse game with opposing pitchers.
Mattingly’s potential concerns were addressed recently when he traveled to New York and took part in the Bonds hiring process. Just a few minutes into a 90-minute interview, Mattingly realized Bonds was sufficiently invested enough to log the time and effort necessary to succeed.
“That was part of the interview — making sure he knew how much time it was,” Mattingly said. “You’re at the ballpark at noon, not showing up at 5 o’clock for a 7 o’clock game. Coaches are there longer than when you played, and you’re preparing, and you’re getting guys ready.
“Barry’s knowledge is at a level that not many people understand, but he’s also a guy that came up with pretty good teaching. His dad was a good teacher. Willie Mays was a pretty good teacher, and Barry’s his godson. So he’s from a good teaching background. And there’s his attitude of wanting to be good. When Barry Bonds tells me he wants to be good at something, I think he’s going to be good.”
During a recent conference call, Bonds said all the right things in the proper deferential tone. He has ample reason to be grateful for a return to the dugout after several years of being perceived as radioactive in baseball circles.
“I’m now a rookie coach, and that’s all I think about,” Bonds said. “It’s not about me. It’s about those guys on the team now. My job is to help other players fulfill their dreams.”
Mattingly, Bonds and Menechino have some talented pieces at their disposal in their efforts to bring postseason baseball to Miami for the first time since 2003. Dee Gordon won a National League batting title and led the league with 58 stolen bases. Christian Yelich posted a .300/.366/.416 slash line at age 23. Marcell Ozuna is two years removed from a 23-homer, 85-RBI season. And Giancarlo Stanton‘s skill set and flair for hitting gargantuan home runs confer upon him a stature that only a few players — like Barry Bonds — can truly understand.
“It’s not so much the hitting, because hitting is hitting, and a guy that can hit home runs hits home runs,” Mattingly said. “I think when pitchers try to stay away from Giancarlo, they’ll probably be doing a lot of the same things they would do with Barry. They’re going to be saying, ‘He won’t beat us. He’s not getting a ball to hit.’ That could make for an interesting relationship between Giancarlo and Barry. How does that help him?”
Miami has another intriguing voice (and acknowledged hitting connoisseur) in outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who will play at age 42 in 2016 and needs 65 hits to surpass 3,000 in the majors. One can only imagine the entertainment value in future gab sessions among Bonds, Ichiro and Mattingly in the dugout, video room, airport terminal or hotel lobby.
For the moment, Mattingly is content to let the relationships play out and focus on the big picture. In 2015, the Marlins drew 1.75 million fans and sported an Opening Day payroll of $68 million, compared to 3.76 million fans and a $272 million payroll for the Dodgers. That said, Mattingly thinks Miami has lots of potential to be an “in” destination for players.
“What a city,” Mattingly said. “If I’m playing and I’m raising a family, it sounds pretty good to me. I’ve got great weather. I get a lot of stuff going on. I get the Heat. I’ve got the Dolphins. It’s a great city to be in. Why not want to go there as a player?
“But we have to create the environment that says, ‘I want to be there. I want to play with those guys. I want to play on a team like that.’ Hopefully, we can create some excitement and get some people in the stands and draw some energy in like that.”
In the next chapter of his career, Mattingly will be equal parts teacher and motivator. He won’t need a fleece or a windbreaker. But in light of Miami’s checkered history with managers, a thick skin will probably come in handy.