Firing line

Back in spring of 2011, Sports Illustrated sent me to Arizona to write about the Kansas City Royals’ promising farm system. I came up with this silly idea of writing it as if we were years into the future, and the Kansas City farm system had matured, and the Royals had become baseball’s dominant team.

After the Royals won the Houston series, I went back and reread that piece. And I will happily say that other than a few wincers — predicting LeBron wouldn’t win a championship, playing up a few washed out Royals prospects like John Lamb and Noel Arguelles and so on — the story holds up in almost eerie ways. The Royals first made the playoffs in 2014, not 2013 like I wrote, but that’s close. And they have not yet won the 2015 World Series like I predicted. But they could.

Specific predictions and pathetic self-congratulation aside, there was something else in that piece that was a bit striking. I had asked Dayton Moore what guided him through the dark years. It’s easy to forget now but Moore was pretty unpopular. He was into his sixth year as the team’s general manager, and the Royals remained in a death spiral of losing. He talked so often about the “process” that the very word became a lightning rod for howls in Kansas City. Royals owner David Glass never even hinted that Moore’s job was on the line, but that didn’t keep many Kansas City fans from hoping for the end of the Moore experience.

And that question: What was the guiding light that led him through?

“The thing I kept thinking all along was, ‘We’re doing this the right way. We’re doing it with good people. At the end of the day we’re going to win,’” he said.

That’s pretty simple sounding, isn’t it? Build your plan around good people who do things the right way and wait for it to pay off. That sounds almost too obvious. It sounds like what everybody around baseball — heck, all around sports — is doing. Why did it work for the Royals?

Well, it might have been the waiting part.

* * *

Right now in Los Angeles, there’s an overwhelming assumption that the Dodgers are going to fire manager Don Mattingly. I mean, once Rob Lowe calls for your head, there’s really no place to go. And, the Dodgers absolutely might fire Mattingly. Three years in a row, his team has died in the playoffs and for an organization spending more money than anyone else, that just isn’t good enough.

But here’s a thought: Is that really the best thing for the organization?

Put another way: The default position in sports is that losing demands change — immediate, sweeping, jolting, all-consuming change. Fire a players manager, hire a drill sergeant. Fire a drill sergeant, hire a players manager. When losing happens, you abandon ship.

The definition of “losing” is, of course, different in different places. If Don Mattingly had led, say, the Milwaukee Brewers to three consecutive division titles, I suspect they would build shrines to the guy, not can him. But the Dodgers pay a lot more money to win than the Brewers, and they have a much longer history of getting close but falling short.

Still, whether it’s Milwaukee or Los Angeles, waiting for a well-thought-out plan to mature is a constant test. An intense wind for change constantly blows. And standing in that wind is as trying and difficult as standing in the pocket with J.J. Watt closing in.

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A few months ago, I went to see the Dodgers. They were comfortably in first place then. I followed Mattingly around for a bit. He has fascinated me for most of my life. Mattingly was irresistible as a player. I grew up a full-blooded Yankee Hater just like every Clevelander I knew, but there was no way not to love Mattingly. The mustache. The batting crouch. The smooth way he scooped bad throws out of the dirt. There was this ballplayer way he walked, some ultra-cool combination of John Wayne, John Glenn and Frank Robinson.

Let me tell you a small thing I noticed: He wears a first baseman’s baseball glove when he does his press conferences in the dugout. He wears the glove with his index finger poked through the hole in the back, and he opens and closes that glove periodically, as if he catching imaginary throws between catches. “One hundred percent ballplayer,” Bill James famously wrote of him. “Zero percent bullshit.”

Of course, this does not make him a good manager or even a passable one. But, dammit, it means something. He lives baseball. The game just emanates from him. If I were a ballplayer, I’d want to play for him.

And what I found was: Players do want to play for him. None of them seemed to consider him a strategic genius. None of them made him sound like a Lyndon Johnson master of the dugout or a Patton-like leader of men.

But over and over they talked about the very thing that I saw in him: You just respect him and like him and even admire him. They all talked about how Mattingly gets ballplayers, treats them like grown-ups, stands up for them in public and doesn’t hold grudges for what happened in the past. He raises his hand when he makes a mistake. He points at himself when there’s blame to be taken.

It was all summed up by pitcher Brandon McCarthy: “He just doesn’t have to do anything to prove himself, you know? What’s there to prove? He’s Don (bleeping) Mattingly.”

“We’re doing it with good people,” Dayton Moore said.

The Dodgers’ general manager, Farhan Zaidi, expanded on the subject. On the surface, Zaidi and president Andrew Friedman might seem immune to the charms and talents of Don Mattingly. They come from headier worlds than ballfields. Friedman was an analyst at Bear Stearns. Zaidi graduated from MIT and has a PhD in economics from Cal. Much was made, and still made, about how they come from the ANALYTICS world while Mattingly comes from the OLD SCHOOL BALLPLAYER world, and that any union is like the marriage between a bird and a fish.

But this simply misses the nuances of the real world: Zaidi and Fredman grew up baseball fans in my generation and so, naturally, they idolized Don Mattingly. And Mattingly is an uncommon star, in that he doesn’t buy into his own stardom and he doesn’t believe that he’s got things figured out.

“He came in and said to us when he got here, ‘Hey, I can learn from you guys.’” Zaidi says, “We told him, ‘Don, we idolized YOU. We can learn from you.’ But I think that just speaks to his character. It’s crazy how some of our players don’t realize just how great a player he was. But that’s just his personality. He doesn’t act like a guy who was that great a player. I guess he feels like he doesn’t have to.”

Zaidi acknowledged Mattingly’s reputation as a less-than-grandmaster-level strategist. He did not so much counter the argument as to shrug about it: “In today’s game you have a bench coach who can help you with that,” Zaidi said. “And the front office can give you information. Of course in-game decisions are important but that’s the entire focus of people. I can tell you, that’s not even close to how we feel about it here.

“Don has tremendous empathy for the players, maybe the single most powerful element of his managing and his leadership. He remembers like yesterday how hard this game is, how you feel after a game when you made a mistake and all that. He just has this innate feel for when to approach the players, an innate feel for what is meaningful and what is just smoke. In today’s game, managing the clubhouse and the personalities is as big, maybe bigger than the in-game decisions.”

“We’re doing this the right way,” Moore said.

None of this means the Dodgers will bring Mattingly back or even that they should. There’s overwhelming momentum in Los Angeles to get rid of him, and once momentum like that gets rolling it is hard to slow. And it is certainly possible that Friedman and Zaidi and the front office will conclude (as many fans have concluded) that the only way for the Dodgers to take the next step is to find a different kind of manager.

But … they might not. Friedman and Zaidi are smart guys. And, as smart guys, they can see that change is often fool’s gold. The real question does not revolve around the Dodgers losing in the playoffs with baseball’s biggest payroll. Heck, they know that “biggest payroll” line is a farce — it’s big, yes, because it’s bloated with all sorts of dead money. The game’s biggest payroll couldn’t prevent Mattingly from being stuck with 36-year-old Jimmy Rollins at short and Brett Anderson as a third starter and using ten different 30-somethings with some regularity in the lineup. This is a brilliant but deeply flawed team, something Friedman and Zaidi surely understand because that’s why they were hired in the first place.

Mattingly guided this team, with all its issues into the playoffs three straight years, first time that has happened in team history. Maybe anybody does that with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke and Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig … maybe not. The Dodgers sailed through some very choppy waters.

Ever since “Moneyball” came out, everybody knows that teams are looking for the new market inefficiency, which is to say the one thing that most other teams are undervaluing. For a time it was on-base percentage. For a time, it was power bullpen arms for the middle innings. For a time it was defense.

If the Dodgers’ brass believes Don Mattingly isn’t good enough, they have to make a move, that’s obvious. But I do wonder, looking around at the panic all around sports, if the new market inefficiency is faith.

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