By Lee Jenkins
September 18, 2010

LOS ANGELES --- One final shred of dignity was peeled from the Dodger facade Friday night, Joe Torre announcing that he would not return to manage the team next season, and Frank McCourt claiming that the decision had nothing to do with him. They sat across from each other at the press conference, an employee who restored credibility to the franchise, and a boss who stripped it away. McCourt thanked Torre for his service --- specifically, consecutive division titles and NLCS berths --- but his gratitude should have extended much farther. Torre did for McCourt what his legion of image makers and PR consultants could not: he put a respectable face on a sullied franchise, and now, that face is gone. McCourt no longer has Torre to play front man. He sits alone atop the Dodger brand, along with his wife Jamie, the couple from Boston who bought the club on borrowed money, used it to borrow more money, and are fighting over it in one of the most expensive divorces in California history. The trial, appropriately, resumes Monday.

Because Torre is 70, he can pretend that he is no longer able to relate to young players, and the Dodgers can pretend he is in search of an easier lifestyle. But everything Torre said Friday pointed to him managing again, perhaps as soon as next season -- just not in Los Angeles. He insisted that he was not scared off by the divorce, repeatedly invoking the name of George Steinbrenner, as proof that he could handle distraction. But the comparison felt forced. Most problems with Steinbrenner stemmed from his relentless desire to win. McCourt does not seem to share the same compulsion. He and his wife collected houses, hairstylists, security guards, man-servants, country club memberships, and if they had anything left over from their massive loans, a serviceable pitcher or two.

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Torre does not have time to wait through the trial, the inevitable appeal, and the equally inevitable sale. So he handed the team to his chosen heir, hitting coach Don Mattingly, who could not turn it down. Mattingly has never managed before, adding to the uncertainty that will hound the Dodgers next season and perhaps the season after. When the Dodgers hired Torre three years ago, general manager Ned Colletti told him to put together a staff that would include his replacement, and Torre immediately targeted Mattingly. Before this season, the last on Torre's contract, Colletti scripted the Dodgers order of succession. Mattingly would follow Torre. No calls would be made. No interviews would be conducted. Colletti cleared his plan with Major League Baseball.

The Dodgers disintegrated this season, but it's too easy to blame all their problems on McCourt, who declined to pay premier free agents and allowed the farm system to wither. The Dodgers banked on a young, talented and affordable nucleus --- headlined by Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, James Loney and Jonathan Broxton --- who boosted them to the playoffs the past two years. All of those once-promising linchpins have regressed, a source of massive frustration for Torre, who began to wonder whether he could ever get through to them. During one team meeting, he asked players to talk amongst themselves, because he had nothing left to add. "I felt this ballclub needed a different voice, a younger voice," Torre said. "I'm talking from a different generation."

When Torre came to Los Angeles, he was drawn by that generation, whom he compared to the crop of Yankee prospects he inherited in 1996. The week before his first game, he watched Kemp and Ethier shag flies during batting practice at Angel Stadium and said: "[This] is the fun part. It's watching young talent develop and grow. It's looking in the eyes of young players and sensing when they reach the point that they come to the ballpark knowing what to expect, what to do." They never reached that point, as evidenced by the litany of egregious mistakes they made this season. When Kemp failed to back up second on a stolen-base attempt, and bench coach Bob Schaefer confronted him about it, Kemp's reaction caused Torre to bench him. Later, third-base coach Larry Bowa suggested publicly that Kemp was not giving his all to the game.

Torre's departure is an indictment of the Dodgers young talent, which now must be molded by Mattingly. Asked what gives him hope, Mattingly said: "'08 and '09. There are times you step backward to go forward." Stepping backward is a sensitive subject for Mattingly, whose only real experience as a manager came this season, when he made an ill-fated trip to the mound after a Torre ejection. Mattingly went to visit Broxton and arrange the defense, but after he left, Loney asked a follow-up question and Mattingly returned to the mound. In violating a little-known rule, Broxton had to be removed, and the Dodgers lost the lead and the game. Mattingly will brush up on such technicalities this winter when he manages the Dodgers affiliate in the Arizona Fall League.

Mattingly is a Torre disciple, reasoned and even-keeled, but he vows to spice his approach with other influences, among them Billy Martin, Lou Piniella and Dallas Green. "There's got to be some fire under there," said Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake. "He's Donnie Baseball." The Dodgers need him to develop personality, if only to take attention off McCourt. In a stilted exchange at Friday's press conference, McCourt asked Mattingly: "Are you ready?" to which Mattingly replied that he was, and McCourt said to him: "I know you're ready. I can see it when I talk to you. I can hear it in your voice."

Mattingly's chances would improve a great deal without McCourt, but apparently he is going to hang onto the franchise by his fingernails. "I'm not selling," he said, and a city winced. Colletti said he will talk with Torre about staying in Los Angeles and taking another position in the organization, but with 10 potential managerial openings, he should have much better opportunities. "I don't anticipate managing again," Torre said, before issuing the predictable qualifier: "I'm certainly not going to not listen to something if it's intriguing or exciting." A few minutes later, he seemed to soften his stance even more. "This is just not managing the Dodgers again," he said. "Hopefully I'll have choices."

When Torre held his last goodbye press conference, in a ballroom at the Rye Town Hilton in Westchester County nearly three years ago, he was hurt by the way his bosses had treated him. This time around, he is not hurt, just aware. He is doing exactly what Steinbrenner taught him: Refusing to tolerate a loser.

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