Don Mattingly was expecting the question before he'd even picked up the phone. Seems like everyone back East has the same curiosity about the transplanted Yankee who's 3,000 miles away and just happens to be managing the National League's best team.
Mattingly in Dodger Blue has never looked quite right, not to those who remember him as Donnie Baseball, the forefather of the '90s golden era. We all assume Mattingly's career is taking a long, lazy circle back to the Bronx -- it's just a matter of time before he finds his roots. Right?
With no disrespect to the Yankees, Mattingly is dropping hints that he's already said goodbye forever.
"This (Dodgers) organization has been good to me, they were loyal when I went through tough personal times and that means a lot," Mattingly said. "The truth is, I love it here. I love the National League. I love the Dodgers. I would sign a deal right now to stay as long as they wanted me."
Mattingly was speaking the other day from his hotel room in Arizona, where the Dodgers had been busy wiping out the D-backs. Before an 11-4 loss on Wednesday, Mattingly's crew was on a six-game winning streak, including a sweep of the Cardinals. Not only did the Dodgers lead the NL West by seven games entering Thursday, the widest margin in either league, they also had the majors' best record at 30-14.
No one saw this renaissance coming, not even Mattingly. He's the first to admit: "We don't have a bunch of superstars. I mean, we've got (Matt) Kemp and (Andre) Ethier, but not too many others who make you say, 'wow.' "
The key? Mattingly cites the "power" of the Dodgers' unity, and how they've reached a nirvana of sorts where, "everyone is pulling in the same direction."
It's taken Mattingly several years to acquire the subtle gifts that separate good managers from the great ones. At 51, he's finally old enough to be respected as an elder, which adds to his currency in the clubhouse. Mattingly is calm without being soft, knowledgeable without being brainy like Joe Maddon, demanding without being overbearing like Tony La Russa used to be.
Mostly, it's Mattingly's accomplishments as a hitter that super-charge his resume; he was an Eighties superstar. That was supposed to smooth his post-retirement path with the Yankees. Indeed, Mattingly was Joe Torre's choice to succeed him in the dugout and appeared to be ready to inherit the job after Torre's departure in 2007.
When it came to officially interview, however, Mattingly was uncharacteristically distracted, unprepared. Only later did Yankee officials put the pieces together: Mattingly was going through a devastating divorce and admits he could've never been successful taking over in 2008.
In fact, Mattingly says the decision to hire Joe Girardi, "was a blessing. Believe me, (the Yankees) did me a favor."
Mattingly avoids talking about his ex-wife, Kim, or the fact that he had to take out a restraining order against her that winter, or that she was ultimately arrested for public intoxication outside the couple's home in Evansville, Ind.
That's all in the past - Mattingly has been happily re-married since 2010 - but he recalls the pain of the break-up and how it kept him out of baseball the following summer.
"It was 28 years (with Kim), and that's a long time, man," Mattingly said. "I'd never been through those kinds of problems before. Joe (Torre) ended up going to the Dodgers and he wanted me to be his hitting instructor. I called him and said, "Joe, I can't eat, I can't sleep, I can't be any good to you right now."
"That's why I say it was a blessing the Yankees didn't hire me. Knowing what I know about New York, how tough it is, what kind of microscope you're under ... there's just no way. Not getting the job allowed me to go the Dodgers - they told me, 'take as much time as you need. We still want you to do this next year.' "
Mattingly didn't need a full year to regain his equilibrium; he joined the Dodgers' coaching staff in July and spent the next 2 1/2 seasons learning from Torre. He's never forgotten the breathing room he got from GM Ned Colletti and is paying it forward nine innings at a time.
With this kind of success, Mattingly could turn into a latter-day Walter Alston - a lifer at Chavez Ravine. He's serious about his loyalty quotient. Mattingly's debt to the Dodgers will never be entirely repaid, which is why he has no intention of bailing out. Not today or tomorrow or the five minutes after Girardi is someday let go.
That's not to say Mattingly has forsaken his past. He still feels a bond with Derek Jeter and with a laugh, says: "I love Yogi, too. I mean, it's the Yankees - Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle -- and I was part of that. The fans were great to me."
But what Mattingly would rather talk about is Chris Capuano, who's 6-1 and making the Mets rue their decision to let him leave as a free agent. Mattingly is excited about managing in the NL, where, "you can get embarrassed every night if you're not on your toes. You can run out of players in a heartbeat. I really love National League baseball."
This isn't hype; Mattingly isn't wired for exaggeration. It's his brave, new world - and the farewell to the old one.