Donnie Baseball: Mattingly on the rejuvenated Dodgers

Don Mattingly, Los Angeles Dodgers
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Don Mattingly, Los Angeles Dodgers

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.

"There's no excuses, for sure," said pitcher Clayton Kershaw, a former Cy Young winner who is in the running again this year. "I'd rather have it this way than the other way, when there's no expectations because we don't have a good team on the field."

All of this is a relief to Mattingly, whose "death watch" was being counted down in the press two months into the season. Now he could be named manager of the year.

But nothing in baseball is ever certain, and the Dodgers continue to have challenges. Puig, while considered a potential franchise superstar, is young, suddenly rich and new to America. He is a large personality who likes to enjoy himself. Mattingly pulled Puig from a game earlier this week for no apparent physical reason, but perhaps because the outfielder sulked onto the field and was not in his position as play resumed.

When asked about his management style, Mattingly said, "The guys have got to have fun—the game's meant to be played with fun, but within that there has to be a structure of, 'Hey, we've got to be on time, we've got to be ready to play, we've got to do our work.' I think we have a responsibility to the fans and to the game itself."

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Mattingly spent his entire playing career with the New York Yankees, earning the nickname "Donnie Baseball" for a legacy that will probably land him in the Hall of Fame. He later worked on the Yankee's coaching staff, before following Joe Torre to Los Angeles. Having worked for George Steinbrenner, the McCourts, and now the Guggenheim group, Mattingly was asked about the impact so many wealthy people with such different personalities have on a team.

"George was more—you didn't see him very much. Hear him a lot, didn't see him. With Mark and Todd and the Guggenheim group, Magic, they're here a lot, and they're on the road a lot. We see them in the locker room," he said.

When the McCourts were divorcing, Mattingly added, "you could just see little stuff behind the scenes starting to where everything was kind of getting as lean as you could go."

After the new owners bought the team, they "vowed to redo the stadium underneath, and they have, and they've basically tried to restore the luster of the Dodgers. ... They kind of have done everything they said they were going to do," he said.

Except rebuild Dodgers stadium. The 51-year-old behemoth is one of the oldest ballparks in the country, but locals might lay down in front of bulldozers rather than have Chavez Ravine razed. "It's so beautiful out here," said Jerry Nahar, who has been coming to the stadium his whole life.

And the owners may have money to begin acting on whatever plans they have after a Dodger TV channel with Time Warner, worth an estimated $7 billion to the team, launches next year.

Does it feel strange wearing Dodger blue after so many years in Yankee pinstripes? Mattingly laughs. "It's definitely different," he said. "Early on it was weird just seeing the color—the blue shoes ... and just being somewhere different."

He has settled in, though. "I always liked the West Coast," he said. "For me it was always a good fit, because I'm pretty low key and laid back off the field."

Mattingly does see a difference in the fans versus those in New York. "It's this," he said, pointing to a smog-free blue sky. "Obviously both [coasts] have traffic, but out here, I think, 'Hey, it's going to be a nice day today.' "

—By CNBC's Jane Wells. Follow her on Twitter @janewells