The coolest thing about the Miami Marlins’ opening workout for pitchers and catchers on Tuesday was seeing Don Mattingly there.
The man is as calm and consistently reliable as a baseball lifer can be. They call him Donnie Baseball, for crying out loud, and he wears the title well.
The Marlins, on the other hand, are a franchise that is known for erratic fits and starts, as directed by team owner Jeffrey Loria.
He fired Joe Girardi and Ozzie Guillen after one season each as Miami’s manager. He brought Jack McKeon back for a return engagement to run the team for half a season at the age of 80. He even turned the dugout over to front office executive Dan Jennings a few years back, which even now sounds like some kind of a prank.
None of this seemed to worry Mattingly when he took the Marlins job in October of 2015. The decision was made just one week after he parted ways with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a big-money team with a history of winning.
Did he really give it much thought? Did he really think that managing a young team not quite ready to contend would be satisfying, or that working for Loria could ever pass for a long-term career plan?
“I’ve never had any problem working for anyone,” Mattingly said one year ago on the occasion of his opening spring workout as Marlins manager. “I need to make sure he (Loria) knows where we’re at. I want to know what he wants from his club. I want to know the expectations, the little things that he wants, and I’ll take care of them.”
Now it’s 2017 and Donnie Baseball is back, eager to start his second season with Miami and giving every sign of a guy who likes his lineup, likes his pitching staff and likes the idea of making everybody just a little bit better. Period.
You want drama in the clubhouse? The best Mattingly can do is listening to player complaints about his ban on facial hair and deciding this spring to lift it.
“We talked about keeping it groomed and just being professional,” Mattingly said Tuesday.
“A little bit of it last year for me was being in a new situation and I kind of wanted to make sure the team was put first. It wasn’t going to be about personal things more than trying to create an atmosphere around team.”
The Marlins went 79-82 last year, their best finish since 2010, so it figures that a good team atmosphere has been established under the deeply respected Mattingly’s leadership. He wasn’t just here to give the Marlins a test drive, like former hitting coach Barry Bonds.
Besides, if it was really about beards, the frequently fuzzy Chicago Cubs wouldn’t be World Series champions. At spring training, at any point in the marathon run of a baseball season, it’s about being accountable and focusing on high performance above all else.
Mattingly makes all of that work. Doesn’t necessarily mean that the Marlins will win the NL East this year or get a healthy season out of all their stars, but all of that he makes work every day and over time, and that’s the stability this franchise needs most of all.
Loria attended Tuesday’s opening workout, by the way. He stood by the bullpen mounds, watching his pitchers work and talking casually with his catchers during their brief breaks. What they weren’t discussing was a published report that the Marlins are for sale, with a handshake agreement supposedly in place invovling some unidentified real estate mogul. Maybe it’s all hogwash or maybe it’s not, but Loria didn’t talk to reporters about that or anything else.
Meanwhile, Mattingly’s guys kept going about their duties, keeping it monotonous, keeping spring training useful, further proving that no matter what anyone thinks about Loria, he finally got this manager hire right.
“The club being for sale or not being for sale really has no effect on how we play on the field,” said outfielder Christian Yelich, who was in for some early hitting prior to the full squad’s Saturday reporting date. “That’s not for us to decide and we don’t get any of the money if it’s sold, so all we can focus on is doing our jobs, so whatever happens, happens.”
Later, Yelich addressed an easier topic, namely how valuable is it this spring, with the Loria talk swirling and the trauma of Jose Fernandez’s September death still fresh, to have a steady hand like Mattingly in charge?
“He’s great,” Yelich said. “He’s one of those managers that keeps an even keel during a season, whether you win five or lose five, and that’s important because you’re going to have your ups and downs during the season, no matter how good or bad you are as a team.
“He’s still here, and he’s got a couple more to go.”
That’s a reference to Mattingly’s original four-year deal with the Marlins. I never really believed he would serve it all out, or that he might even outlast Loria around here, but it might happen.
“We’re a pretty easy team to like,” Mattingly said. “I think we’re a team that’s fun to watch … I think you see a confidence in these guys. I saw it last year.”
It’s there, all right, and a healthy chunk of that is confidence in Mattingly, the anchor in any Marlins storm, those we already know about and those to come.