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Bill Madden: Yankee legend Don Mattingly’s latest challenge is coaching up the rival Blue Jays

DUNEDIN, Fla. — There is 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 Canadian maple leaf logo on the front than Donald Arthur Mattingly.

I caught up with “Donnie Baseball” conducting infield drills on one of the back fields of the Blue Jays’ minor league complex the other day, and as I approached him, he smiled, knowing what I was going to ask him.

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

“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 home and watch my eight-year-old Louie play Little League.”

And then, out of the (Toronto) blue, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins called and offered him the job of bench coach for John Schneider, who took over as Jays manager on July 13 last year after Atkins fired the popular, easy-going Charlie Montoyo. At first, Mattingly was hesitant until Atkins assured him Schneider was totally on board with the decision. Even though Mattingly was already an established, mostly successful manager himself (889-950), winning three straight AL West titles with the Dodgers from 2013-15, and NL Manager of the Year honors with the Marlins in the pandemic abbreviated 2020 season, he wanted it clear he would not be coming aboard as a manager-in-waiting in the event things didn’t go well in Schneider’s first full year.

But as Atkins explained it the day of Mattingly’s hiring: “Experience and credibility are words that get used a lot in professional sports and in corporate worlds, 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 accountability, which will be huge for us.”

It was a tacit acknowledgment of all that was 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 the rotund catcher Alejandro Kirk, in which the Blue Jays were fourth in the majors in runs, third in OPS and seventh in homers, they never really challenged the Yankees and were later eliminated in two games by the Mariners in the wild card series. What they did lead the league in was showboating and overzealous celebrations, 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 took the first three games of a four-game series against the Yankees to close to seven games of first place and it was as if they had won the World Series. A few days after that series, a Yankee baseball official said to me: “We’re not worried about the Blue Jays. They act like a–holes and they don’t know how to win.”

Of this Atkins could be certain: There is no way the 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 ballclub, he brought in respected former clubhouse leaders Victor Martinez, Edgar Encarnacion, Pat Hentgen and Paul Quantrill as guest instructors this spring. And on the playing side, he addressed the Blue Jays’ biggest need — left-handed hitting and outfield defense — by trading for Arizona’s Daulton Varsho and signing longtime 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 season with 27 homers last year, raised some eyebrows in Toronto if only because of the cost — top rated catching prospect Gabriel Moreno and outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr., 29, 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 a number of teams and Atkins viewed him as checking all his boxes of need. Time will tell if it was too big a giveback as Moreno is widely viewed as a budding superstar and the Blue Jays’ catching depth now appears severely compromised behind the 5-8, 245-pound Kirk and weak-hitting Danny Jansen.

In the meantime, though, optimism reigns in Blue Jay camp this spring — the best kind of optimism. Besides 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 hot dog last year) to Seattle for imposing righty reliever Erik Swanson.

“I’m really impressed with these kids,” said Mattingly. “They really want to win and are going about the business of taking the next step, working hard every day here on the small things it takes to win. One of the big reasons I took this job was because I wanted to go to a team that could win. That wasn’t going to happen in Miami which is why I left. I’d done all I could there and they needed a new voice.”

Don Mattingly was passed over to replace Joe Torre as manager of the Yankees.

Of course, no conversation with Mattingly can’t help but eventually get around to the Yankees, and why he’s never reunited with the team for which he will be forever linked as one of their greatest players. Their severance of ties began in 2007 when Brian Cashman passed him over for manager after Joe Torre in favor of Joe Girardi. He wound up following Torre to Los Angeles as bench coach, then succeeded him as Dodgers manager in 2011. Later, it was on to Miami and the forever-rebuilding Marlins. But still, after all these years, Mattingly has yet to experience a World Series.

Despite the rumors this winter that the Yankees had offered him a job in the YES TV booth, the 61-year-old Mattingly said “not true.” No one from the Yankees, he said, reached out to him about anything. When I asked him if he thought that Yankee ship has forever sailed, 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 all over the place but he ended up back in New York. You never know, but right now at this time in my life, I couldn’t be in a better place.”

A bit of a chill went over baseball last week with the announcement that Diamond Sports Group, the subsidiary that controls the regional networks for 14 major league teams, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. What likely will happen next is that the contractual RSN rights fees to those 14 clubs will be substantially reduced. The Yankees and Mets, as well as the Red Sox, Cubs and Dodgers, are not affected by this since they all have their own regional networks, while teams like the Braves, Cardinals and Angels, all of whose RSNs are extremely profitable, will also not be overly affected. It is teams like the Reds, Guardians, Pirates, Padres and Diamondbacks, whose RSNs are not worth the rights fees, that are going to take the hit, and Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said they will be compensated at least for this year for reduced rights fees by MLB. Eventually, however, Manfred has said MLB’s long-term plan is to control the rights for all its teams under one umbrella. Ironically, this whole mess has come about as a result of Sinclair grossly overpaying — to a 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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