JUPITER, Fla. -- He has been standing behind a batting cage on a back field behind Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium, an old Yankees teammate named Mike Pagliarulo a few feet away from him, and Don Mattingly and Pags are watching kids you have never heard of and might never hear
JUPITER, Fla. -- He has been standing behind a batting cage on a back field behind Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium, an old Yankees teammate named Mike Pagliarulo a few feet away from him, and Don Mattingly and Pags are watching kids you have never heard of and might never hear of take their cuts in the late morning, in the Florida sun.
There has been so much news over the offseason and in the run-up to Spring Training about all the moves another old Yankee, Derek Jeter, has made in his teardown of the Miami Marlins. But Mattingly is still the Marlins' manager. As the organization begins a process that it hopes will pay off for them down the road the way the exact same process paid off for the Astros, it is Mattingly who will be in the dugout and on the field. It is Mattingly who must take the long view while the Marlins are doing all the losing they are going to do in the short run.
"I look at it this way," Mattingly said a few minutes later, leaning over a fence. "We've been given a clean slate here. I've been given a clean slate, the kind you get with an expansion team."
Mattingly never had the best timing with the Yankees. He came up in the 1980s, when they were in the process of going 18 years without winning a World Series and 15 without being in one. And even though there was a moment, in the prime of his career, when he was voted the best player in the game by players in a New York Times poll, Mattingly is the greatest Yankee to never play in a World Series. And he only made it to the postseason once, a five-game American League Division Series against the Mariners in 1995, right before he retired with a bad back.
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After all the time he had waited for October, Mattingly was great in that ALDS, hitting .417 with 10 hits, four of them doubles, one of them a home run, and six RBIs. He managed the Dodgers before he got to Miami, but he never made it to the World Series in Los Angeles, despite a regular season record of 446-363. Now he is about to start his third season with the Marlins, where he somehow got them to 77-85 last season, the season after Jose Fernandez, the team's pitching star and the face of the organization more than even Giancarlo Stanton, was killed in a boating accident.
Now Stanton is gone, too, and Marcell Ozuna is gone and Christian Yelich and Dee Gordon and even the guy who dressed up as Billy the Marlin is gone and there is no longer any baseball past in Miami, just the future.
I said to Mattingly on Thursday morning, "Well, your timing is as good as ever."
He shook his head.
"I believe that Derek has a plan in place and ownership has a plan in place, and we're going to stick with that plan and build something here, from the bottom up, that we all believe is going to last," Mattingly said.
He makes you want to believe Jeter, and want to believe him. You especially want to believe Don Mattingly, who has always been such a classy and honorable baseball professional, as a player and as a manager; who never complained even as a bad back shortened his career, and had him retiring at the age of 34, at this time in baseball when guys who could hit a baseball the way he could hit one in his prime last until their 40th birthday, and sometimes beyond that.
He was finally sitting next to Joe Torre and learning how to be a manager. The Yankees hired Joe Girardi instead of Mattingly when Torre finally walked away from the Yanks after the 2007 season. Torre went to the Dodgers. Mattingly went with him. When the Dodgers finally made it back to the World Series, Donnie Baseball was in Miami. So it goes.
But after a baseball life when it has seemed he has been in the right place just at the wrong time, he is convinced that he is supposed to be working for Jeter and with these kids this season. "What [the Marlins] were doing in the past just wasn't matching up," he said. "And then we lost Jose, who wasn't just the face of the franchise, it was his passion, almost its beating heart. It was the time for this kind of change.
"Derek and I are coming at this from the same place, and I don't just mean the Yankees. He loves the challenge of what we're trying to do here. I love the challenge. We feel the same way about this. Now it's up to me and our coaching staff to make sure we start making the right kind of footprint, make sure from the time these kids walk in the door, from Class A on up, that they know they're going to do things in a certain way, which means the right way."
Mattingly was always a winner with the Yankees, just without portfolio, on his way out as a player just as Jeter was effectively on his way in, about to do all the winning across his own Yankee career that Mattingly did not. It is funny how these things work out. Now two old Yankees are looking at nothing but losing in Miami.
"In the bottom of my heart, I believe I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be," Mattingly said, "and that we're going to end up exactly where we want to be."
It may not be the way to bet in Miami. It is the way to root, as Jeter and Mattingly try to do things the right way. And the hard way.
Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com. He also writes for the New York Daily News.