A cautionary tale for Don Mattingly: The rise and fall of Bill Russell

Bill Russell never had a prayer.

The longtime Dodgers shortstop and coach, who succeeded Tommy Lasorda in June, 1996, had to endure a falling out with his mentor, Lasorda, second-guessing whether he, Mike Scioscia or Reggie Smith was the best choice, the hugely controversial Mike Piazza trade, and the selling of the team from the O’Malleys to News Corp. (Fox). He managed a team that had its stars but was perceived as under-achieving. While it is easy to debate his skills as a major league manager, a combination of external and internal factors made that a small part of the conversation.

Does Don Mattingly have one?

While he has obvious stylistic differences from Russell, and the situation he is walking into is very much in flux, he faces many of the same issues Russell did. Is this where the Dodgers’ managing carousel ends, with Mattingly being their seventh manager since the departure of Lasorda in 1996, or is it just another guy passing through, little more than a late-night trivia question instead of a successful long-term career?

Russell was part of the Dodgers infield that stayed intact for eight straight years. He did seem to be the quietest one of the group. Steve Garvey was the prototypical superstar, Davey Lopes was the base-stealing leadoff guy, and the power-hitting Ron Cey was well……the Penguin.

On the surface, Russell was the most low-key of the group with a solid major league career. While his career batting figures of .263/.310/.338/.648 are at first glance unremarkable, he was, in fact, one of the better-hitting shortstops of his era. Russell was quite consistent, only batting under .250 once when he played over 100 games. He was an excellent contact hitter, finishing third in 1973 with 18.4 at-bats per strikeout and fourth in 1982 with 16.6.

Fielding-wise, Russell stayed busy. He was at or near the top of the list in both errors and assists during many years of the 1970s. He was often near the top of the list in Total Zone Runs (as a SS), including 15 in 1977 (he was 2nd), 12 in 1982 (3rd) and 11 in 1973 (1st). Although not always known for his range, he did have the highest Range Factor/nine innings in 1972 of all shortstops with 5.4, and he scored over five in two other seasons, 1978 and 1981. Russell also was a three-time All-Star. Teams he was on made it to the playoffs six times, the World Series four times, and won it all in 1981.

Russell retired in 1986 and joined Lasorda’s coaching staff the following season. He was the bench coach until the 1992 season, when he became manager of the Albuquerque Dukes, the Dodgers’ Triple-A team. Both of his two years there resulted in sub-.500 records, but he was involved in the mentoring of players like Pedro Martinez, Mike Piazza, Omar Daal and Tom Goodwin, who all had fine careers in the major leagues. In 1994, he was recalled again as Lasorda’s bench coach, and was often seen as the “heir apparent” to the aging Lasorda.

In June, 1996, Lasorda suffered a minor heart attack and had an angioplasty to repair it, so Russell was named interim manager. It was the beginning of some huge changes for the club, which are still being felt today. On July 28, Lasorda announced his retirement, becoming a vice president. At the end of the season, Russell was elevated permanently to the manager’s position. Over the next two years, Peter O’Malley would sell the team to Fox, trade away Piazza, and, in a big housecleaning, fire Russell and GM Fred Claire, turning one of the game’s most respected franchises into a sea of uncertainty and instability that still lingers today.

Fred Claire, in his book Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue, remembers that he and O’Malley considered Russell the logical choice to replace Lasorda.

“Peter and I both knew it wasn’t going to be easy for Tommy to step aside, but we felt if anyone had a chance to make the transition easier, it was Bill. It was Tommy who first managed Bill in Ogden, Utah in the Pioneer League in 1966. Tommy, who had always been a big supporter of Bill throughout Russell’s playing career, and Tommy who had brought him back as a coach. Tommy said more than once that Bill was his second son.”

There were people in and out of the organization who preferred one of the other coaches over Russell. Reggie Smith had his followers in the organization, as did Albuquerque’s manager and 1988 hero Mike Scioscia. In the second-guessing world, it’s hard to remember Smith, but with Scioscia’s long and successful tenure with the Angels, especially considering Russell’s fate and the parade of coaches that came after him, there was, and always will be, plenty of Monday morning quarterbacks pondering that one.

Russell had inherited a team with five homegrown Rookie of the Year award winners. Piazza and Eric Karros were establishing themselves as stars, putting up huge power numbers. Raul Mondesi also looked to be establishing himself as a five-tool threat, and Hideo Nomo, who won the award in 1995, anchored a strong starting staff that included youngsters Ismael Valdez, Pedro Astacio and aging knuckleballer Tom Candiotti. Todd Worrell (also a former Rookie of the Year) was one of the game’s best closers, and he had a sharp bullpen with Antonio Osuna, Chan Ho Park and Scott Radinsky backing him up.

The team was pretty light in the offensive depth department, but overall looked to have great potential. Unfortunately, when Lasorda left, they looked like underachievers to that point, with a 41-35 record; not too bad, but hardly awe-inspiring.

Russell took the team to a 90-72 record, which was better that where Lasorda had them, but what is most remembered was the last series of the season in which they were swept by the Padres and knocked out of first into the wild card. They then went on to get swept by the Braves in the opening round of the playoffs. The critics came out calling them underachievers, and Russell took some of the heat, with his differences in management style from Lasorda being highlighted.

Writer Tom Verducci told Steve Delsohn as much in the book True Blue.

“I thought they had pretty good talent. Maybe not ’98 Yankees talent. But I thought there was enough talent to do better. So I definitely think they underachieved. And a lot of that had to do with the chemistry there.”

Bullpen coach Mark Cresse agreed.

“There was no fire in the belly. There was no Kirk Gibson who would get right into a guy’s face if he was doggin’ it. I don’t know why that was. But some players play cool, some play balls-out. We just didn’t have those balls-out players.”

Karros thought the team wasn’t deep enough.

“And the reality is sure we had a good team, but we didn’t have a deep team. We had weaknesses. We weren’t solid one through 25. So while we definitely had talent, we weren’t a team that would just steamroll. We had very good teams, but were we World Series teams? Well, a lot of things would’ve needed to go right for us.”

The next season saw another second-place finish, two games behind the Giants and four games behind the wild card, and eventual world champion, Marlins. Piazza, Mondesi and Karros put up their huge numbers, with Piazza leading the league in WAR at 9.7 and Mondesi getting 30 home runs and 32 stolen bases. Todd Zeile was a fine addition, getting 30 HR and 91 RBI, filling a void left open with Tim Wallach’s departure.

The pitching was solid, finishing second to the Braves (the Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz Braves) in earned run average. But while they led the league in homers, they were middle of the pack in RBIs, and Worrell had a rough year, surrendering twice as many homers as he had the year before, giving up more hits and walks than usual, and having a 5.28 ERA. The first half of the season was shaky, but they were in first place on September 1. However, a bad September, including five straight losses to the Giants and Rockies, killed off their playoff hopes.

That year, Russell had some problems with Valdez and Astacio. In separate incidents, he had very public, televised disagreements when he took them out of games, which caused many to question his control of the clubhouse. Second baseman Eric Young remarked about it to Delsohn.

“Those pitchers were upset that Russell was taking them out of games too soon. That’s what I heard when I got there. And you got to remember, players got to respect their manager. And if you don’t respect him, you’re gonna challenge his leadership. And that’s what happened there.”

ESPN writer Tim Kurkjian put it in perspective:

“When players and managers yell at one another—right in the dugout on national TV—that becomes a story anywhere. But when you’re mild-mannered Bill Russell managing the Dodgers following Tommy Lasorda and anything goes wrong, it’s bound to be bigger than if it happens in Minnesota or Detroit. It’s always magnified in Los Angeles.”

Russell didn’t necessarily see it that way.

“They’re tough competitors, and they weren’t pitching well at the time, and I got in their face to motivate them. And they reacted. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I wouldn’t want them to hang their head and walk into the clubhouse like they’re defeated. I want them to fight back, and that’s what they did, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately it happened with all the cameras watching.”

Claire wasn’t happy with how the season ended.

“We let the season get away from us. We should have been in the playoffs. There were some game situations…..there was one game against Colorado that very frankly we never should’ve lost. I realize it probably sounds like a second-guess. But I said so at the time, I wasn’t pleased with how ’97 ended. Billy knew it. I wasn’t a happy camper.”

The writing on the wall was getting bigger. The press was calling the Dodgers under-achievers, the fans were getting restless, and O’Malley was trying to sell the team.

Going into 1998, the team was transitioning from O’Malley to Fox. Meanwhile, the club and Piazza were in contract negotiations that were not going well. According to Claire, the club offered Piazza $12.6 million annually for six years, but Piazza wanted something in the 100-million dollar range. The club and Piazza supposedly agreed to disagree, and put off negotiations until the end of the season.

After Opening Day, Piazza let loose with Jason Reid of the Los Angeles Times.

“I’m not going to lie and say I’m not concerned about this, that I’m not confused and disappointed by the whole thing, because I am. I’m mad that this has dragged into the season and that it now has the potential to become a distraction. How can I not think about this?”

On May 15, Piazza was traded, along with Zeile, to the Marlins for Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson, Jim Eisenreich, Bobby Bonilla and Manuel Barrios. The Marlins were looking to get rid of payroll, and they soon shipped Piazza and Zeile off to other teams. It was a watershed moment in Dodgers history, trading off a homegrown favorite son for a bunch of guys who’d never been in the organization.

Symbolically, the “Dodger Way,” a phrase coined by the O’Malleys, emphasized grooming the team through minor league development over playing the free agent market. To fans, the trading away of Piazza signaled a change in that philosophy. It did not go over well with many fans and the press, but the Fox guys figured they would lose Piazza to the free agent market at the end of the season, and wanted to get as much value as they could.

It was then found out that Chase Carey, the president of Fox Television, and Bob Graziano, the new team president, engineered the trade over the heads of Russell and especially Claire, who thought of resigning on the spot.

“I had been talking to the Marlins about acquiring Johnson and Sheffield, but I had never mentioned Bobby Bonilla. Then I got a call from Bob Graziano. He said, ‘Chase has completed the trade and it needs to be announced tonight.’ I said ‘There will be two announcements tonight. I’ll announce the trade, then I’ll announce my status. Clearly you don’t need me if someone else is making the trades.’”

Claire went public about the trade going over his head, and it made the Fox people unhappy. And that, combined with another lackluster start, led to another bombshell when he and Russell got fired in favor of minor league coach Glenn Hoffman as manager and Lasorda becoming interim GM. Many said Lasorda was instrumental in getting Russell fired.

Verducci offered this perspective:

“We heard all those Machiavellian rumors about Tommy doing things behind the scenes. But now that I’ve seen these Fox people in action for a year or so, I think it was inevitable that Russell would go. Russell was not a great manager. He had no star quality, which the Fox people like. So maybe Tommy convinced them and maybe he didn’t. Either way, I think Russell would’ve been gone.”

Lasorda vehemently denied being involved in the firing, although he did express disappointment at Russell’s failure to consult him on issues. Russell supposedly told Doug Krikorian of The Long Beach Press-Telegram that he believed Lasorda was instrumental in his firing.

“He never once invited me to lunch, he never once invited me to dinner, never once asked me what he should do, which is fine, and that’s ok with me. He’s got to survive on his own ability. But if he needed me, I was always ready to help him. So when he made that statement, it was like somebody stuck a knife in me. Hurt? I was unbelievably hurt. What I did for that guy? Because I loved him and I believed in him? And for him to make those statements was terrible. Terrible! There’s no way. Why would I want him out of there? Why would I say anything bad about him? I loved him like a son! And for him to do that to me I will never forgive him!”

Either way, Russell was gone. He compiled a 173-149 record with the Dodgers, and never managed in the majors again. He was a bench coach for Tampa Bay for one year, and coached in the minors for the Devil Rays and the Giants.

Russell never could shake the team’s “underachiever” label, and two late season collapses backed this up. He had some great hitters and excellent starting pitching, but Russell was not well-suited to this particular team. Perhaps a more proven hand could’ve done better with this team of young veterans. Russell would’ve been better suited to a re-building team, where his patience would’ve paid off more.

The ownership situation doomed him. Fox wanted a high-profile manager, and they settled on Davey Johnson eventually, who would then be succeeded by Grady Little and Jim Tracy. Ultimately, however, Russell didn’t get it done. For an organization hungry for another world championship, late-season collapses and three-and-out playoff appearances wouldn’t cut it.

The team has not totally recovered on any level. After two managers in forty-three years, Don Mattingly will be the seventh manager in fifteen years, while Neil Colletti, the fifth GM since Claire was fired, seems to be providing some stability in the front office. Fox seemed to tire of baseball and passed the team off like a hot potato to Frank McCourt, who, despite making it to the LCS two times in three years, saw the team underachieve badly in 2010 and is now mired in ugly divorce proceedings that may ultimately force the team to be sold yet again.

Into all this walks Don Mattingly, who, despite some obvious differences with Russell, comes into a situation with some eerie resemblances that may have him in trouble before play even begins.

Like Russell and the Dodgers, Mattingly was a longtime loyal Yankee, and was a much more dynamic player than Russell was. He was a six-time All-Star, won the MVP in 1985, and garnered nine Gold Gloves. He has a lifetime batting average of .307, including years in which he hit .343 (1984) and .352 (1986). Before a bad back hampered him, he had power, averaging almost 30 home runs between 1984 and 1987, and even with the bad back, he averaged over 30 doubles a season for his career.

Billy Martin was a big fan. In Billyball he gushed:

“He’s what people call a gamer. He plays hard all the time, wants to win, wants to be the best and is never satisfied. He’s constantly working to improve, and he plays every game like it’s the seventh game of the World Series and every at-bat like it’s two out in the bottom of the ninth and his team is one run down.”

Mattingly was also the unquestioned leader of the Yankee clubhouse. Buster Olney noted how he welcomed the recently acquired Paul O’Neill into the clubhouse.

“Mattingly was, (Buck) Showalter thought, the perfect role model for O’Neill as he began his time in New York; he nudged the newcomer subtly, teasing him, making him feel comfortable right away.”

Olney went on to refer to Mattingly as the Yankee clubhouse “de facto spokesman for years.”

Then back problems reduced his effectiveness and cut his career a few years short. From 1997-2003, he served as a special instructor in the Yankee system before being elevated to hitting coach in 2004. In 2006, he became Joe Torre’s bench coach, and followed him to Los Angeles when Torre left the Yankees. After Torre retired, Mattingly was made manager.

Like Russell, he enters the managing world at a tough time. While Russell did some time managing in the minor leagues, Mattingly never has managed. He is currently managing the Phoenix Desert Dogs of the AFL, but that is it. Like Russell, he is following an icon, although he won’t have to deal with much of Torre’s baggage. Torre was a relative short-timer in Los Angeles, while Lasorda managed for twenty years and stayed on in the front office after he stepped down. Some of that baggage was certainly instrumental in Russell’s demise.

Next, there is the ownership. It’s still not a done deal that McCourt will own the team much longer. His divorce proceedings are far from over, and it is anyone’s guess who ends up with the team. In this limbo status, McCourt, quite cheap in the first place, may be hamstrung as far as spending goes to fill team needs. It is hard to say what kind of patience McCourt would have with Mattingly if he stays as owner. Tracy had one sub-par season, and McCourt got rid of him quickly.

Another factor here is Tim Wallach, who has won praise for his success with the Albuquerque team, and is seen by many as a fine potential major league manager.

Russell inherited a contending team. It was a team that seemed to tune out its coaches and not always play as hard as it could, but the potential was there. There was an offense built around Piazza, Karros and Mondesi, plus strong pitchers like Nomo. Mattingly inherits a question mark. Colletti talks about being active in the free agent and trade market, so it is hard to say which of the existing pieces will still be there.

He can count on a reasonably strong rotation with Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly, but he faces a huge re-building project in the bullpen. Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier will most likely be back, and their success—or lack thereof—may be the deciding factor of how this team does.

Ethier was strong in the first half like the rest of the Dodgers, but faded in the second half, perhaps due to injury. Kemp had an off year, and there are questions about his competitiveness and drive. James Loney may or may not be trade bait, but he will bring a decent bat and a fine glove. Rafael Furcal, if he stays healthy, will be strong at shortstop. Russell Martin suffered a big injury in 2010 and is a question mark. As of now, they need a starting pitcher, bullpen help, a left fielder, a second basemen and maybe a catcher.

It looks like there is too much up in the air for a first-time manager to be successful. If Colletti and whoever owns the team get some quality players and some of the existing players play to their potential and stay healthy, it’s not unreasonable for the Dodgers to be playoff contenders.

There are many “ifs,” too many to feel comfortable. If Mattingly can bring the competitiveness and leadership he had as a player and have it rub off on the Dodgers, good things can happen. But they also could slip into the morass they were in last season. If so, it will be a long year.

References & Resources
Steve Delsohn True Blue
Fred Claire with Steve Springer My Thirty Years in Dodger Blue
Billy Martin with Phil Pepe Billyball
Buster Olney The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty

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Comments

  1. Jim C said...

    Well-written and well-researched Steve. I think Mattingly’s biggest problem will be playing in a division with 3 good teams, including the defending World Series Champions. Close behind is the financial situation with the team which will make it hard for them to add quality players. Other than that, I think he will do as well Torre with the talent available.

  2. Paul E said...

    Looking forward to watching Donnie Baseball turn Matt Kemp into the player he should have become before he went Hollywood. Actually, looking forward to Matt Kemp’s response to Donnie’s prodding, cajoling, and demanding to become “all he can be”….

    Perhaps it’s just me, but the “media” always have loved Don Mattingly. I find this quite ironic since he wasn’t a “winner” who enjoyed a lot of post-season success-the true subjects of media adoration.

    At the least, maybe Loney will drive the ball and become a 20HR .290/.360/.500 under Don’s tutelage

  3. Eric said...

    Who wrote this? Neil Colletti? IS that Dodger GM NED Colletti’s brother? And you botched the whole Piazza trade too. In Fred Claire’s book it was explained that Fox wanted very badly to start a sports cabel channel in Florida and orchestarted the Piazza trade to help boost interest in baseball there.  The people at Fox, who had ZERO sense of how MLB and an MLB franchise runs, didnt realize the Marlins had no money and from minute one were looking to re-trade Piazza.

  4. Steven Booth said...

    Eric-

    Maybe Neil invented “cabel” not sure, though.

    Also know that while it is correct what you say about Claire’s book, they wouldn’t have entertained such thoughts if they thought they had a chance (or a desire) to sign Piazza. They knew he was going to leave, so they figured to get the best deal possible for him before losing him to free agency. The cable channel nonsense came afterwards.

  5. John Ott said...

    To be fair, Kemp, Loney et al WERE under Mattingly’s tutelage as hitting coach. Having him as manager instead won’t have them all hitting better. And there isn’t a division in baseball without 3 good teams, at least on paper. I think Mattingly’s biggest problems will come from the front office, and the best thing he can do for the team is not to overuse the bullpen staff.

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