By Ross Newhan
The Dodgers passed the baseball milepost that is July 4 in a virtual tie with San Francisco for the National League West lead, and with the return of Matt Kemp and Andre Eithier now within eye-sight.
Whether Ned Colletti and the new ownership can pull off a significant trade for a first baseman (Carlos Lee is welcome to stay on his Houston ranch), third baseman or fifth starting pitcher before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline is uncertain given that two wild card teams in each league qualify for the playoffs and a vast number of the 30 teams seem deluded into thinking they already have a playoff roster.
However, one thing is certain as the Dodgers begin the statistical second half of a 162 game schedule:
With the possible exception of Clint Hurdle with the Pittsburgh Pirates or Davey Johnson with the Washington Nationals, no one is more deserving of the first half's Manager of the Year award--if such an award officially existed--than Don Mattingly.
Operating with mirrors up from a conspicuously barren farm system, maneuvering a retread bullpen and recycled position players of the Juan Rivera and Bobby Abreau caliber and keeping his mind on managerial business amid the ownership turmoil, Mattingly's Dodgers maintained the league's best record until the missing bats of Kemp and Eithier and the broken bats of James Loney and Juan Uribe stripped his team of any offense.
The Dodgers still reached the holiday milepost with the league's second best record--the Nationals had one more win--and the second half expectation of a playoff run with the return of Kemp and Eithier and the possibility of a deadline trade.
There was a time, after Mattingly replaced Joe Torre at the end of the 2010 season, when the Dodgers absorbed a measure of media criticism for selecting a successor who had no managerial experience at any level despite his coaching experience under Torre in both New York and Los Angeles. Yet, even last year, as the distraction of the ownership mess began to surface, Mattingly continued to remind the Dodgers that each game carried its own significance and merit.
The Dodgers were 14 games under .500 on July 6 but didn't quit. They won 11 of their last 12 series, 25 of their last 35 games, and matched division champion Arizona for the best record in the league after Aug. 21, finishing 82-79.
Despite the owership distractions and lineup injuries, the Dodgers went to bat Wednesday 23 games over .500 since the first week of last July, and if Mattingly--with his calm but determined demeanor--has proven his ability to critics and cynics over that period, he, perhaps, has proven something to himself.
There is no question but that he was disappointed when the Yankees chose Joe Girardi to replace Torre as manager after the 2007 season. He was Donnie Baseball. No one was more pin-striped or popular in New York. In retrospect, however, Mattingly is grateful he didn't get the job. He was going through a divorce, his personal life coming apart, and under the pressure of the Bronx he admittedly would not have been able to stay focused on his job.
Torre brought Mattingly to Los Angeles with him--an indiction of the respect in which Torre held Mattingly, both personally and baseball wise--and after taking a brief hiatus to deal with his family situation, he joined the Dodgers as hitting coach after the 2008 All-Star break, replaced Torre at the end of the 2010 season and married his new wife, Lori, that December.
Mattingly will acknowledge that the marriage has been an elixer at a pivotal point in his life, and the Dodgers--under their new ownership--have every reason to acknowledge that their managerial marriage has been a similar elixer, any doubts removed on the milepost morning of a surprising season that figures to be even more of a sparkler in the second half.