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Mattingly showing he's right man at right time for youthful Dodgers

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- New Dodgers manager Don Mattingly bounces from player to player and field to field out here at Camelback Ranch, imparting the wisdom gathered during three decades as an excellent player and respected coach.

Mattingly's lack of managerial experience may prove to be an issue, but it hasn't been so far. Certainly not with the Dodgers players and staff, who all seem to have the utmost respect for Donnie Baseball, a 19th-round Yankees draft choice who turned himself into a league MVP and well-liked coach; who won teammates' and players' respect with his hard work and legendarily consistent personality; and who, at 49, might be young enough to relate to this young and talented Dodgers nucleus.

"Mattingly brings a lot of energy to the job," one Dodgers official said. "There's a lot more of a positive atmosphere this year."

Mattingly wouldn't exactly put it that way since he owes his managerial status to predecessor Joe Torre, the iconic manager who was named this Saturday as MLB's executive vice president for baseball operations. Torre is a Hall of Fame manager, and he did a typically stellar job his first two years in Los Angeles before losing a young and at times immature clubhouse last year. There's a lot of talent on the L.A. roster, but not one Derek Jeter.

"As Joe himself said, it was time for a new voice," Dodgers GM Ned Colletti said. "What Joe was implying is that Don is somewhat closer in age and may relate better."

Torre was a great fit for a veteran team, but at 70 was starting to have difficulties with the youthful Dodgers. The team finished a disappointing 80-82 last year, but the pitching is better with Ted Lilly and Jon Garland on the roster to start this season. The names on the every-day lineup looked slightly better last year, but Manny Ramirez and Russell Martin were disappointments.

Perhaps as important, there is a better feel around the team now according to folks here, a fact largely attributable to Mattingly.

"I'm pretty simple," Mattingly said. "I want guys to have fun. I want them loose. All I ask is for guys to be ready to play." If players make mistakes, Mattingly promises not to overreact. "I understand how hard this game is."

The game of managing isn't so easy, either. While some may question Mattingly's readiness for the job, he brings a lot of positives: he's hard working, he's honest and he isn't afraid to confront issues as they occur.

Of course, this is only spring training, when "pretty much everyone," as Mattingly said, has an upbeat attitude.

Still, the reviews thus far have been wildly positive.

Colletti called Mattingly's introductory speech to the team "one of the best I've ever heard." Others who listened concurred. Mattingly, who played or worked under an eclectic mix of managers including Yogi Berra, Billy Martin, Lou Piniella, Dallas Green, Buck Showalter and Torre, said he learned something from every one of them. Of all of Torre's strengths, Mattingly most sharply recalls Torre's ability to understand the length of the season, and not to panic with each setback.

With an inexperienced team, Mattingly can expect setbacks this year. Young players need understanding, but they also need someone who will tell it to them straight. "I'm going to let them know we're going to make decisions; we want tough decisions," Mattingly said. Larry Bowa, a great baseball man, was the coach who got in players' faces last year when they needed it, but at least Matt Kemp, the most talented of the lot, seemed to become offended by Bowa's stark suggestions about his effort, whether accurate or not. Mattingly is supported by one of baseball's better coaching staffs, which includes ex-Dodger Davey Lopes and the well-respected Tim Wallach, and that can't hurt.

"My kids are different than me," Mattingly said. "These kids are going to be different. But when a guy struggles, he has the same feelings I have."

When Torre was originally hired, it was agreed that Mattingly would take over when Torre left. That doesn't matter now. What does matter is that Dodgers people seem confident Mattingly is the right man at this time.

Some may still wonder about Mattingly's readiness. But Colletti rifled off a list of more than a half-dozen successful managers who started managing at the big-league level, including Piniella, Ozzie Guillen, Joe Girardi (whom Colletti first tried to hire), Dusty Baker, Bud Black, Bob Brenly and Cito Gaston.

Plus, Mattingly has already experienced some growing pains. Last season, while filling in after Torre and bench coach Bob Schaefer had been ejected in a game, Mattingly accidentally crossed the baseline twice and had to remove a pitcher after Giants manager Bruce Bochy pointed it out to umpires. Mattignly told Ken Davidoff of Newsday, "It's a mistake you don't want to have to deal with. It's embarrassing. But you know what? If that's going to stop you, forget it."

That's typical Mattingly, simple and sincere. "A player called him back," Colletti explained. And besides that, as Colletti pointed out, "He wasn't planning on managing those games."

Now he knows this is for real. And he may surprise some folks.