By Jon Weisman
When a manager does one of those things, like Don Mattingly did (by choosing to face Jason Heyward over either Reed Johnson or Jose Constanza in the seventh inning of Friday's second game of the National League Division Series between his Los Angeles Dodgers and Fredi Gonzalez's Atlanta Braves), the public reaction becomes this tsunami of derision that essentially boils down to the following:
How can the guy making the decisions be dumber than everyone not making the decisions?
The answer, of course, is Mattingly's not dumber than everyone else, even if in that particular instance, he might have been. Mattingly remains the guy who kept the Dodgers from caving in to their 30-42 start in 2013, and as much as you might attribute their subsequent 42-8 division-deciding run to events independent of his leadership, there are any number of ways he could have fatally messed things up, on the field as well as in the clubhouse.
They say no one remembers who finished second, but not many more remember when a manager gets a decision right. We might not even see the crucial times, behind the scenes, when he really makes a positive impact. Given that those of us in the stands or on Twitter would make our own share of mistakes, it's far from fair to paint Mattingly as the class stooge.
But in those moments when it's just so plain obvious -- and let's be clear, it does not make sense to have relief pitcher Paco Rodriguez pitch to a power hitter like Heyward carrying a .347 on-base percentage against lefties after loading the bases, rather than to have Rodriguez take on journeyman Johnson or have Chris Withrow face a gimmie from god-like Jose Constanza with one fewer runner on base -- the key question in my mind becomes this:
How does the organization respond?
Postgame chat provides little insight. All we really know about are the down-the-road, binary outcomes: A manager gets fired, as Dusty Baker was by the NL wild-card losing Reds early Friday morning, or he doesn't, as Terry Francona won't be by the AL wild-card losing Indians. But so much happens before we get to that day of destiny.
There's a workplace comedy -- admittedly, a particularly niche one -- that could be made about all this stuff. Imagine a "30 Rock" at the ballpark instead of Rockefeller Center, with Liz Lemon as the well-intentioned but occasionally clumsy-thinking manager of a baseball team, the players as the Jenna Maroneys and Tracy Jordans of the group and the front office offering a Stan Kasten-Jack Donaghy equivalency. Do the players blithely go about their business, paying attention to their manager only when necessary? Are there recriminations from below or above? Does hijinx simply beget more hijinx?
Perhaps most important, is it a post-modern comedy where no one really grows, or is it a throwback sitcom that ends with sweet music and a valuable lesson about the rewards of hard work, being kind to your neighbor or not obsessing over the platoon advantage?
Spelling out right and wrong might be hokey, but it's not like it doesn't have value.
In a postseason that had been nearly drama-free -- not one of the first seven games since the end of the regular season Sunday had been decided by fewer than three runs before we got Braves 4, Dodgers 3 -- the bottom of the seventh at Atlanta was the first big teaching moment for playoff managers. (If not for Mattingly, Gonzalez might have been the one under the microscope, having Andrelton Simmons bunt with two on and none out against Withrow.)
As the teams fly out to Los Angeles ahead of Sunday's Game 3, the Dodgers know they are mostly at the mercy of how their players execute. There's no debate the leadoff walk by Withrow that started the whole seventh-inning mess was, you know, not good, and it's worth trying to break down what went wrong (if it wasn't anything more than nerves from a pitcher facing his first career playoff batter).
But does the organization understand Mattingly's decision to walk Johnson is also a thing? It didn't singlehandedly cost the Dodgers the game, any more than that theoretical blunder by Yasiel Puig his naysayers eagerly wait for would have. But it's something that clearly should never have happened and should not be repeated. Can the key people in the Dodger organization deconstruct what went wrong with Mattingly's decision in the seventh, the same way you would break down a bad pitch sequence to a hitter?
In other words, is it too late, once you get to the playoffs, for a manager to learn?
It seems almost naïve to think any manager who made an obvious mistake one game would change his stripes enough to avoid it the next game, particularly any manager who had enough success to reach the playoffs in the first place. But that ability to adjust, to grow, is the kind of thing that could not only make the difference between first-round elimination and the World Series, but also between a division-winning manager getting the early October ax or late-October adulation.
Managing a ballclub is a thankless job when you lose, but there are ways to better your odds, and there's never a bad time to keep trying to master them. Consider this a public service announcement at the end of Friday's episode: The More You Know.
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