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Bill Madden: Yankees legend Don Mattingly’s latest challenge is to coach rival Blue Jays

DUNEDIN, Fla. — There’s a whole new air of professionalism around the Blue Jays this spring, and right in the middle of it is a guy who couldn’t look more out of place in a royal blue and white Toronto uniform with the red Toronto logo. Canadian maple leaf on the front than Donald Arthur Mattingly.

I ran into “Donnie Baseball” doing field drills the other day in one of the back fields of the Blue Jays minor league complex, and as I approached him, he smiled, knowing what I was going to ask him.

“So what are you doing here, in the enemy’s belly?”

“I’ll be honest,” Mattingly said. “When I left Miami after last season ended, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was perfectly content to sit at home and watch my eight-year-old Louie play Little League.”

And then out of the blue (Toronto), Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins called him and offered him the bench coaching job for John Schneider, who took over as manager of the Blue Jays on July 13 of last year after that Atkins fired the popular and easygoing Charlie. Montoyo. Mattingly was initially hesitant until Atkins assured him that Schneider was fully on board with the decision. Although Mattingly was already an established and mostly successful manager (889-950), he won three straight AL West titles with the Dodgers from 2013 to 2015, and NL Manager of the Year honors with With the Marlins in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he wanted to make it clear that he would not step on as manager-in-waiting should things not pan out in Schneider’s first full year.

But as Atkins explained on the day of Mattingly’s hiring: “Experience and credibility are words thrown around a lot in professional sports and in the corporate world, but it’s hard to quantify exactly how valuable that is. I think (the hiring of Mattingly) is something that will have a calming impact and influence. It will help not only with performance and lack thereof, but also with responsibility, which will be huge for us.”

It was a tacit acknowledgment of everything that went wrong with the Blue Jays last year. Despite a loaded, power-laden lineup led by All-Stars Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, George Springer and rotund catcher Alejandro Kirk, in which the Blue Jays were fourth in the majors in runs scored, third in OPS and seventh in home runs. , they never actually challenged the Yankees and were then eliminated in two games by the Mariners in the wild card series. What they did lead the league at was overzealous display and celebration, especially after home runs for which they kept a “home run jacket” in the dugout. Such was the case in New York in late August when they brought the first three games of a four-game series against the Yankees to within seven games of first place and it was as if they had won the World Series. A few days after that series, a Yankees baseball official told me, “We’re not worried about the Blue Jays. They act like idiots and don’t know how to win.”

Of this Atkins could be sure: There is no way Blue Jay players would act like this in front of Mattingly, the epitome of professionalism. But to further emphasize his dedication to changing the culture around his baseball club, he invited former clubhouse leaders Víctor Martínez, Edgar Encarnación, Pat Hentgen and Paul Quantrill as guest instructors this spring. And on the play side, he addressed the Blue Jays’ biggest need — left-handed hitting and outfield defense — by trading for Arizona’s Daulton Varsho and signing Rays inspirational force Kevin Kiermaier as a free agent.

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The trade for the 26-year-old Varsho, who had a breakout 27-homer season last year, turned heads in Toronto if only for the cost: top-rated catching prospect Gabriel Moreno and 29-year-old outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. years old, who slashed .291/.343/.400 in ’22 but is eligible for free agency after the ’24 season. But Varsho, a team leader in Arizona, was coveted by several teams and Atkins saw him as someone who ticked all the boxes for him. Time will tell if it was too big of a return, as Moreno is widely viewed as a superstar in the making and the Blue Jays’ receiving depth now looks severely compromised behind the 5-8, 245-pound Kirk and weak-hitting Danny Jansen. .

In the meantime, however, optimism reigns at Camp Blue Jay this spring: the best kind of optimism. In addition to Varsho and Kiermaier, Atkins also signed Chris Bassitt as a proven No. 3 starter behind Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman and traded outfielder Teoscar Hernandez (who some would suggest was the Blue Jays’ No. 1 hotdog last year). past) to Seattle for towering right-handed reliever Erik Swanson.

“I’m really impressed with these kids,” Mattingly said. “They really want to win and are dedicated to taking the next step, working hard every day here on the little things it takes to win. One of the main reasons I took this job was because I wanted to go to a team that could win. That was not going to happen in Miami, that’s why I left. He had done everything he could there and they needed a new voice.”

Don Mattingly was ruled out to replace Joe Torre as Yankees manager.

Of course, no amount of conversation with Mattingly can prevent him from eventually making it to the Yankees, and why he never reunited with the team he’ll forever be tied to as one of its greatest players. His breakup began in 2007 when Brian Cashman dropped him as manager after Joe Torre in favor of Joe Girardi. He ended up following Torre to Los Angeles as bench coach, then succeeded him as manager of the Dodgers in 2011. Later, he went to Miami and the rebuilding Marlins. But still, after all these years, Mattingly has yet to experience a World Series.

Despite rumors this winter that the Yankees had offered him a job on the YES TV booth, Mattingly, 61, said that was “not true.” No one from the Yankees, he said, approached him for anything. When I asked him if he believed that Yankee ship had sailed forever, he shrugged.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “I grew up there and they will always be a part of me. That never changes. Look at Yogi, when he left he was everywhere but he ended up in New York. You never know, but right now, at this point in my life, I couldn’t be in a better place.”

A bit of a chill washed over baseball last week with the announcement that Diamond Sports Group, the subsidiary that controls the regional networks of 14 Major League Baseball teams, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. What will likely happen next is that RSN’s contractual rights fees for those 14 clubs will be reduced substantially. The Yankees and Mets, as well as the Red Sox, Cubs, and Dodgers, are not affected by this, as they all have their own regional networks, while teams like the Braves, Cardinals, and Angels, whose RSNs are extremely profitable, they will also not be too affected. It’s teams like the Reds, the Guardians, the Pirates, the Padres, and the Diamondbacks, whose RSNs aren’t worth the rights fees, that are going to take the hit, and baseball commissioner Rob Manfredo He said they will be compensated for at least this year for MLB’s reduced rights fees. Eventually, though, Manfred has said that MLB’s long-term plan is to control the rights to all of its teams under one umbrella. Ironically, this whole mess came about as a result of Sinclair overpaying, to the tune of $9.6 billion, for the rights to Disney’s 21 regional FOX sports networks in 2019. The No. 2 bidder was reportedly MLB.

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