It's good to be Don Mattingly these days. A lot better than it was in June, when the Los Angeles Dodgers were nearly 10 games out of first place in their division. Now they're 10 games ahead.
"I was pretty realistic about the way the club was playing," said the Dodgers manager earlier this week. "[Dodgers President] Stan Kasten was being honest with me about what was going on. ... I think we had 20 different guys on the DL, and were banged up and hurt."
Not anymore. While fan favorite Matt Kemp continues to recover, most of the other key players are healthy and performing well. Suddenly, the hundreds of millions of dollars management spent on player acquisitions doesn't look like a foolish indulgence.
The Dodgers now have the highest payroll in baseball—higher than the Yankees—at more than $220 million, compared with just $90 million a year ago, according to data from ESPN. That money came on top of the more than $2 billion the Guggenheim Baseball Group and Magic Johnson spent to buy the team 16 months ago.
"While it's dramatic, it's never reckless," said General Manager Ned Colletti of the spending spree. "Remember, we're the Dodgers, and we play in LA, and we needed to get this franchise back into a great place and do it as fast as possible."
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The fans have responded. Dodger Stadium has returned to the top spot in Major League Baseball attendance this year, averaging an estimated 45,000 fans per home game, up from 36,000 two years ago.
"It feels great to see the place full," Mattingly said. "It wasn't so much just the fact that there weren't that many people—it was the energy," he said of the dark days, when former owners Frank and Jamie McCourt declared bankruptcy during a bitter divorce.
"There was a negative vibe around the Dodgers. ... [Fans] felt like they were embarrassed," Mattingly said the day the Guggenheim deal was announced, "There was an instant change in attitude in the fan base itself. You could just feel it."
Still, in June, the Dodgers were a mess, and the manager's job was on the line. Then, a 22-year-old Cuban defector being paid a mere $3.7 million played his first game with the team. Yasiel Puig ended that game with a dramatic play in center field.
"I can still remember the cameras catching Andre Ethier coming after Puig had made that play, and the look on Andre's face told me all I needed to know," Colletti said. "We had rejuvenated everybody."
That, plus the physical recovery of key players, has potentially put the Dodgers on the road to their their first World Series in 25 years. That's a long time for the team of Robinson, Koufax, Drysdale and so many others to have been sitting idle in October.