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This story first appeared in the Aug. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Tommy Lasorda and Don Mattingly
Known as “Donnie Baseball” during his days as the New York Yankees’ first baseman in the 1980s and ’90s, Mattingly has endured his share of pressure-filled situations on the field, not to mention scrutiny in a town known for critical sports media. Perhaps that was the perfect training for his first season as manager of the Dodgers in 2011 — a year filled with disappointment on the field and controversy in the owner’s box.
But Mattingly, who began as hitting coach with the Dodgers in 2008 under then-manager Joe Torre, had a willing mentor in former Dodgers skipper Lasorda, a three-time World Series champion and current special adviser to the chairman. Says Mattingly, “Whenever something was going on, he’d tell me a story or something he had been through and just kind of helped me through all that.” Although the team struggled during the first half of 2011, Mattingly turned it around in the final months of the season, salvaging a winning record.
He also coaxed an MVP-caliber season from firebrand center fielder Matt Kemp and a Cy Young Award for left-handed pitcher Clayton Kershaw. Observers, including Lasorda, credit Mattingly, 51, for getting the team’s nucleus of young stars — including Kemp and Kershaw — to trust him. “That’s the answer to it. If the players believe in the manager and players love the manager, then they are going to play hard for him — that’s the way it goes,” says Lasorda, still fiery at 84 despite suffering a heart attack (his second) a little more than a week before being interviewed.
An Indiana native, Mattingly made his big-league debut in 1982, a year after the Lasorda-led Dodgers beat the Yankees in the World Series. Mattingly, the American League MVP in 1985, never played in a World Series, retiring the year before the Yankees won in 1996. But Lasorda hopes Mattingly’s timing is better as a manager: “I want to see him do well — I think he’s an outstanding man. I think he’s done an outstanding job.”
Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier
Kemp, 27, and Ethier, 30, recently have been rewarded with massive contract extensions, cementing their roles as the young faces of the franchise. Kemp signed an eight-year, $160 million contract in November — one of the bright spots during the rough end of Frank McCourt’s ownership tenure.
Then, in June, the new owners inked Ethier to a five-year, $85 million extension. “It’s a big privilege,” says Ethier of the new group making his contract extension its first large deal. “I trust them — this is the only place I wanted to be. I’ve grown up here. This is definitely my home.”
Ethier, the Phoenix-born right fielder and married father of two who also is a foodie — his current favorite L.A. dining spots include Son of a Gun, Cooks County and Ink — made the All-Star team in 2010 and 2011. But Kemp is the team’s biggest star; last year, the silky center fielder batted .324 with 39 home runs, 40 steals and 126 RBI (he has battled a hamstring injury this season). Kemp dated pop star Rihanna and recently appeared on the covers of Forbes, ESPN the Magazine and Sports Illustrated, the latter with Magic Johnson.
A high school basketball star in Oklahoma, Kemp has been vocal about his willingness to take on Johnson on the court, perhaps in an event for charity. “I think Magic believes that he can beat me,” he says, “and I believe that I can beat Magic.” Johnson is ready for the challenge, provided the Dodgers perform. “We gotta win first,” he says. “All that will happen after we have a long run in the playoffs, hopefully.”
Star southpaw Kershaw, 24, says that because he and his teammates can only control “the stuff on the field,” issues related to ownership — whether it was the distractions of the Frank McCourt era or the new group’s ballyhooed purchase — don’t really affect players.
But the two-time All-Star and 2011 National League Cy Young Award winner, a Dallas native who is married, concedes the change at the top has made the game more enjoyable: “I think there is a better atmosphere around here, more excitement. And it’s more fun to play, for sure.”
Two die-hard Dodger fans, two very different backgrounds. King, 78, attended his first game in 1943 — in his hometown of Brooklyn.
Four years later, King was on hand for Jackie Robinson‘s first game at Ebbets Field (the talk show host interviewed Robinson twice). King moved to Miami to break into broadcasting in 1957, the last year the team played in Brooklyn. When he moved to L.A. in 1997, he renewed his love for the club. “I’ve bled Dodger blue all my life,” says King, a season ticket holder who can be seen regularly in the Dugout Club.
Lopez, 51, a Mission Hills native who has a “Lopezuela” jersey in honor of former star pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, recalls fondly his grandfather taking him to his first Dodger Stadium game when he was 6. Says Lopez, “I’ve been to Rome, I’ve been to the Vatican, and this is the Vatican west.”
Peter O’Malley and Stan Kasten
On a recent evening, former Dodgers owner O’Malley returned to the stadium to take in a game, a rare occurrence during the Frank McCourt era. As the 74-year-old strode through a concourse, fans young and old — including children who weren’t born when he sold the team to News Corp. in 1998 — approached O’Malley for autographs, and he obliged every one.
O’Malley, also on his way to new baseball ownership, with his family-led group agreeing to purchase the San Diego Padres on Aug. 6 for about $800 million, has praise for the new Dodgers owners: “Magic is so loved, respected and admired in the community. Peter brings a lot to the party — creative, smart and visible. The team, together with the Guggenheim folks, I think it’s a winner.”
For current team president Kasten, 60, bringing back former Dodgers is a priority. “We’re working on a plan to achieve that,” he says, adding that since the new owners took over, former players and execs have come out of the woodwork to get involved. “That’s been really nice for us.”
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