Home Sports With an Ax Hovering, Don Mattingly Savors His Time as Marlins Manager

With an Ax Hovering, Don Mattingly Savors His Time as Marlins Manager

PHILADELPHIA — In his 40 years in baseball, Don Mattingly has experienced it all, from the dizzying heights — a Most Valuable Player Award at 24 — to the lowest depths — a rapid plummet as injuries prematurely ended his playing career with the Yankees.

These days, Mattingly must draw from that spectrum of success and struggle as he manages the Miami Marlins, a raw team undergoing a complete rebuild.

Mattingly is in the final year of the four-year deal he signed under a previous ownership group. It is a huge change from his time managing the Los Angeles Dodgers, as Joe Torre’s successor, and serving as Torre’s bench coach with the Yankees. Both of those teams had bountiful payrolls and a regular presence in the postseason.

His Marlins have the worst record in the majors, 10-27 as of Thursday, and the worst attendance figures, drawing the ire of Derek Jeter, the team’s chief executive and a part owner, who recently said that “everyone knows we’re better than this.” Just weeks into the season, the team fired batting coach Mike Pagliarulo, Mattingly’s old Yankees teammate.

But if anything, Mattingly seems energized by starting over again, vital for someone working with a young team at the margins. The stakes are as different as possible from those in his last job: Replacing Torre, he managed the Dodgers to three straight division titles before he was fired. He now has a chance to mold a team in his own image.

“My first couple of years here were one thing. My last couple it’s like a whole new thing,” Mattingly said, sitting in the dugout on a recent afternoon, looking much the same, a week after turning 58, as he did decades ago in a Yankees uniform. “It’s almost like a new job. You keep moving forward in this game. You try to get better every day. You prepare for that next game. The ones behind you are gone.”

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Mattingly at Yankee Stadium in 1995, his final season as a player. He retired from playing at age 34.CreditAdam Nadel/Associated Press

The same approach helped bring Mattingly the kind of success in baseball that few have tasted: nine Gold Gloves at first base, a .343 average to win a batting title at age 23, the M.V.P. award a year later and a season for the ages at 25, when he hit .352 with nearly as many home runs (31) as strikeouts (35).

Mattingly’s dominance ended when back injuries took hold. And the Yankees went into a downward spiral, bottoming out in 1990 as the American League’s worst team. He lasted through the team’s rebirth, making his first trip to the playoffs in 1995, his final season. He was just 34.

Mattingly has yet to appear in the World Series: The Yankees won it the year after he retired, and their string of annual appearances ended before he became Torre’s bench coach; the Dodgers made it two seasons after he left.

He has had four decades of tomorrows in the game, and yet he exuded an unmistakable energy as he bounded out of the clubhouse and onto the field. He settled into a chair set up on the field, getting to his national television pregame interview before the host or the camera operator, ready to throw out phrases like “We’ve been in games” and “He’s just evolving for me” — the language of rebuilds.

Things looked more promising when he arrived. Mattingly’s first Marlins team finished 79-82 in 2016, with a core of young hitters — J.T. Realmuto, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton, none of them older than 26 — and an electrifying 23-year-old pitcher, Jose Fernandez. They seemed ready to dominate for the next decade.

But Fernandez died in a boating accident that fall, and when the Marlins were sold, the new ownership decided to start over. Realmuto is now a Phillie, Stanton a Yankee, Ozuna a Cardinal, Yelich, the reigning National League M.V.P., a Brewer. All were traded to restock a farm system and build the Marlins into a contender several years from now.

The centerpiece of the Yelich trade, center fielder Lewis Brinson, 25, has been disappointing, hitting .199 since joining the Marlins. He is now in the minors. The team’s new elder statesman, Curtis Granderson, 38, hasn’t made much impact on the field. He was hitting .168 before the weekend. A rare bright spot is starting pitcher Caleb Smith, who is 3-0 with an earned run average of 2.11.

Mattingly after a visit to the mound last month.CreditMark Brown/Getty Images

Despite Mattingly’s résumé — his experience with the Yankees and Dodgers, franchises that don’t settle for anything less than World Series trophies — somehow the Marlins seem like a better fit for him.

Any reckoning of the playing careers of current major league managers would place Mattingly well ahead of everyone else, all due respect to Ron Gardenhire’s .232 career batting average. Yet Mattingly sees his career as slow-blooming, formed not when all of New York adored him, but when he lasted until the 19th round of the 1979 draft and then set about proving himself, taking four full seasons to reach the major leagues.

In other words, he knows the meaning of incremental growth.

“I had to work my way through,” Mattingly said. “I had to hit my way to the big leagues. And so I know how hard it is to get here. And how you have to improve, and you have to get better all the time. And you just never forget that.”

Mattingly is going through early fatherhood all over again. He has six boys, four grown; the youngest, Louis, is 4. That means Mattingly can relate to his young players, knowing with immediacy what they are going through when they have children. Three weeks later, he checks to see if they’re getting any sleep.

He is adapting to a lot these days, savoring changes in the game. So his Marlins, far from lagging on the analytics side, currently lead the majors in infield shifts.

“The evolution of the game and everything that’s happened, from launch angle to shifts, all that stuff — that helps you,” Mattingly said, adding: “It’s invigorating to keep learning. You don’t want to get to the point where you’re just like, ‘Ugh, this game. What are they doing?’”

Mattingly said he would be at peace with whatever the Marlins decide when his contract expires at the end of the season. “And if I’m here or I’m not here, this is going to be a good place to be,” Mattingly said. “It is. It’s going to be good from the minor leagues on up.”