Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly took his normal spot in the visitor’s dugout on Wednesday for the third game of a four-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The game ended in an eventual 2-1 walk-off loss in 11 innings, but a sidenote in that game looms large.
Mattingly, on that day, became the longest-tenured manager in Marlins history when he led the team for his 556th time. He surpassed Fredi Gonzalez, who managed the club for 555 games from 2007-2010 and has been Mattingly’s third base coach since the start of the 2017 season.
Mattingly understands the milestone, but isn’t ready to reflect on it just yet. Not when there’s still work to do. The Marlins still have 88 games left in the season, Year 2 of an organizational rebuild in the second year of the Bruce Sherman/Derek Jeter ownership group and arguably the toughest of his nine years as an MLB manager.
And even through through all the twists and turns that have occurred around the franchise over the last three-and-a-half years, Mattingly’s views on his job hasn’t changed.
He came in before the 2016 season after five years managing the Los Angeles Dodgers wanting to be part of the group that brought the Marlins back to relevance.
That mindset hasn’t faded even if the circumstances around the team did.
“Just taking a little detour along the way,” said Mattingly, the former six-time All-Star during his 14-year MLB career with the New York Yankees.
When Mattingly was formally hired in November 2015, he inherited a young team littered with All-Star potential.
Jose Fernandez. Giancarlo Stanton. Dee Gordon. JT Realmuto. Marcell Ozuna. Christian Yelich.
That team went 79-82 — their most wins in a season since 2010 — and finished 7-and-a-half games out of the wild card.
“I was excited about where that could go,” Mattingly said Wednesday. “Obviously things changed after a couple years.”
It started with Fernandez’s death on Sept. 25, 2016, when the 24-year-old crashed his boat with two friend on board into jetty rocks at Government Cut. His loss is still felt by the organization almost three years later.
“That put us back,” Mattingly said.
So did trading the team’s five core offensive players — Gordon, Ozuna, Stanton and Yelich ahead of the 2018 season; Realmuto before the 2019 season — in a set of moves under the Sherman/Jeter organization in an attempt to overhaul a barren farm system and prepare the team for future success. The Marlins went 63-98 last year and have a National League-worst 29-46 record in 2019. Mattingly is 248-311 in his time with the Marlins.
“With the record, you wouldn’t look at it as something that’s going in the right direction,” Mattingly said, “but you really feel that way in the organization that things are going right.”
And with that, Mattingly has faced a new challenge in his managing career. His club doesn’t have a bonafide All-Star or face of the franchise. Instead, he’s managing a roster consisting of a mix of young players waiting to break through and make a name for themselves, mid-tier veterans playing as everyday starters for the first time and a handful of veterans on one-year contracts looking to make the most of the last few years of their career and provide guidance to a young club.
“I feel like he has a different role now,” said Marlins shortstop Miguel Rojas, one of a handful of players who have been on the Marlins roster since Mattingly’s tenure began. “Before, he used to have a lot of stars on his team, and he needed to deal with that, which is hard too. But now, he’s working personally with guys who are going to be the future of this game.”
Whether he’ll be here to see the rebuild through to its completion is another question. Mattingly’s contract expires at the end of the season.
“Either or, I still think the organization is going to be in a good spot,” Mattingly said earlier this season. “The main thing is, I would love to see it through, but that is not my decision. No matter what happens with me, the organization is going in the right direction.”
The team has already shown flashes of that potential even this year. The Marlins went 13-5 over a three week stretch that ran from late May to early June. The young starting pitching staff — all eight players who have made a start this year are no older than 27 — leads the NL East and is seventh in MLB baseball. Garrett Cooper and Harold Ramirez have evolved to become steady hitters for a lineup that has gone through hitting and scoring droughts. Catcher Jorge Alfaro has evolved into one of the team’s leaders, and Brian Anderson has been a steady fixture in his second full MLB season.
“We’re showing that we can compete and we do belong,” veteran reliever Sergio Romo said after Friday’s 2-1 win over the Phillies. “We may not be that great in the standings, but we’re a competitive ball club. Everyone takes some lumps. ... We’ve just got to keep it going. We’re finding an identity. We really, really are. We’re finding out that we’re a bunch of misfits. We’re those guys that they pushed to the side but we have a lot of fight. It’s fun to watch and fun to be part of.”
Mattingly agreed with the sentiment.
“What he saying is nobody has really given us a chance,” Mattingly said. “If you really take a pretty good look at us, you’re seeing a club that’s really in most games. ... Eventually, you’re going to have a crew that’s going to be good.”