By Tony Jackson
Dodger Stadium was all dressed up on Monday, the grass having been perfectly groomed, the infield having been dragged and the bases having been put in place as if it were mid-July. Joe Torre, making his first public appearance as manager of the Dodgers, was all dressed up, too, as he addressed a bicoastal media contingent while standing on a platform that had been constructed in center field.
“This is where Willie Davis used to run down everything I hit,” said Torre, whose 18-year playing career included a National League Most Valuable Player award in 1971. “The opportunity to manage the Los Angeles Dodgers, this is one of a handful of organizations that you automatically say yes to. When I think of the Dodgers, I think of efficiency, I think of pride, and I think of a measuring stick. You were always measuring yourself against the Dodgers, because they did everything right and had a lot of class.”
After a couple of hours, that large media gathering was whittled to a handful of print reporters and moved to a board room up in the Dodgers’ corporate offices, for a less formal session with the man who had guided the New York Yankees to playoff appearances in each of the past dozen seasons.
It was there that pomp and circumstance officially gave way to nuts and bolts.
Torre’s first order of business will be to complete his coaching staff. To the surprise of no one, Torre announced that Larry Bowa and Don Mattingly, two key members of his Yankees staff, will be joining him in Los Angeles and that Bowa will be the Dodgers’ third-base coach. To the surprise of many, though, Torre said Mattingly won’t be his bench coach as he was in New York this season, but instead will be his hitting coach, as he was from 2004-06.
“Right now, unless something (else) happens when we’re hiring appropriate people to fill roles, Donnie will be my hitting coach,” Torre said. “We will hire a bench coach.”
That person is likely to be Lee Mazzilli, the former Baltimore manager who served as Torre’s bench coach in 2006 before being fired and replaced by Mattingly — a decision made primarily by the Yankees front office, not by Torre — a year ago. Mazzilli also was the Yankees’ first-base coach from 2000-03 before being hired to manage the Orioles in 2004.
Reached Monday on his cell phone, Mazzilli wouldn’t confirm that he’ll be a part of the Dodgers staff. But it was clear from what little he did say that he has a strong chance.
“Joe and I are talking, and we’re having some dialogue,” Mazzilli said. “We’re talking, but I think it’s unfair right now for me to discuss anything beyond that.”
Another former Yankees coach rumored to be joining Torre with the Dodgers was Jose Cardenal, but that is looking less likely now, especially if the club retains current first-base coach Mariano Duncan. Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said no members of former manager Grady Little’s coaching staff have been given a definite answer as to whether they will be brought back.
Despite the fact he won’t be the bench coach, Mattingly remains the heir apparent to Torre, whose three-year contract for just more than $13 million will take him past his 70th birthday in 2010. Colletti said last week in announcing Torre’s hiring that the decision was based largely on establishing continuity, and without mentioning Mattingly by name, Colletti acknowledged that he hopes Torre can groom one of his coaches to eventually succeed him.
For his part, Torre has no problem with that.
“I feel like I have been doing it all the time,” Torre said. “I did it when (current New York Mets manager) Willie Randolph was my bench coach and even my third-base coach. If you do something in a game, you tell them your reasons for doing it. When (new Yankees manager) Joe Girardi sat next to me, when (Mazzilli) sat next to me and when Donnie sat next to me as bench coaches, I was grooming all of them, and I am very comfortable doing that.
“How can you be involved in the game as long as I have been and not share what you know?”
Torre admitted that after having been in the American League for the past 12 years, he knows little to nothing about most of the Dodgers players.
“Most of that work will be done in spring training,” he said. “There may be a time or two, and I have already talked to Jeff Kent, where I’ll try to reach out, maybe drop a note or call somebody just to get more of a feel.”
Torre returned a phone message from Kent over the weekend and said he came away from the conversation with a strong sense that Kent will return for the final season of his contract and probably of his career — not that anyone ever seriously doubted that, given that Kent has a guaranteed salary of $9 million if he plays in 2008.
Torre’s effort to familiarize himself with the players during spring training will be made more urgent by the strong likelihood that half the team will travel to Beijing for a March 14-15 exhibition series with San Diego, and the fact that anyone making that trip is expected to then spend the final two weeks of camp at a yet-to-be-determined site in Arizona rather than flying all the way back to Vero Beach, Fla.
Torre takes the job knowing that the Dodgers aren’t likely to ever approach the estimated $234 million player payroll the Yankees had this season. But he also takes it believing strongly that Dodgers owners Frank and Jamie McCourt will provide him with whatever resources he needs to build a winner.
“I am convinced the McCourts are determined to bring a championship here,” Torre said. “Does that mean we have to (win) it right now? What it takes to build a foundation is to put all the blocks in place to move in that direction. Does that mean we’re not going to win (in 2008)? No, it means we can win (in 2008). But their commitment is to bringing the Dodgers name and the Dodgers franchise back to that stable organization and back to being a team that people expect to win every year.”
By Tony Jackson