For three uncertain, unsettled seasons he has operated as the manager.
Now, finally, Don Mattingly is the boss.
In a move that will certify his credibility in the clubhouse and presence in the dugout, the Dodgers have smartly given Mattingly a two-year contract extension through 2016 in a move that works for everyone.
A combustible team equally capable of championship and circus now has one less major distraction, while a solid guy who has led this team with a feather duster has finally been given a hammer.
The Dodgers no longer have to worry about the stability of their leadership, and Mattingly no longer has to worry about his freedom to lead.
Although nobody will talk about Monday's deal until it is officially announced later this week, the genesis for this extension lies in Mattingly's weariness over his lack of job security. Not once during his three seasons here has he felt truly secure, with massive changes in ownership and roster resulting in a dizzying lame-duck ride that resulted in last fall's memorable crash-and-burn news conference.
While speaking at what was supposed to be a routine season wrap-up, Mattingly confirmed that the club's one-year option on his contract had automatically vested, but said he wasn't sure he would return. He essentially challenged the Guggenheim group to either give him the strength of a long-term deal or let him walk.
"With the payroll and the guys that you have, it puts you in a tough spot in the clubhouse,'' Mattingly said at the time, referring to a one-year deal. "Really, what it does, it puts me in a spot where everything that I do is questioned because I'm basically trying out or auditioning to say, 'Can he manage or can he not manage?' To me it's at that point where, three years in, either you know or you don't.''
The Dodgers knew he could manage players. What they questioned was his ability to manage a game. They didn't know whether he would eventually grow into the sort of strategist necessary to win big games in October. They wanted another year to find out, but Mattingly made it clear that he had been dangling long enough.
The Dodgers got the message. While they were greatly irritated that Mattingly chose to publicly air his grievances, the highest levels of the organization decided he was worth the extra two seasons. They replaced bench coach Trey Hillman with Tim Wallach so Mattingly could have the benefit of a new viewpoint in late-inning situations, then threw Mattingly his anchor.
They are still concerned about his ability in such postseason situations as last fall in Atlanta, when, in a National League division series, he walked Reed Johnson to pitch to Jason Heyward in a Game 2 loss to the Braves. Then there was his decision to pinch-run for Adrian Gonzalez in the eighth inning of a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 13-inning opener of the Championship Series.
But overall they feel Mattingly, who has a 260-225 record with one division title in three years, is the best manager to lead baseball's highest-paid team through what is certain to be a drama-filled future. Mattingly can now navigate that future on firm footing, which is good, because he'll need it, beginning now.
This season's Dodgers are dealing with the expiring contracts of stars Clayton Kershaw and Hanley Ramirez. They are dealing with four star outfielders for three outfield spots. They are dealing with a schedule that begins with a series in Australia against the vengeful Arizona Diamondbacks and ends shortly after a 10-game trip in the middle of September.
This season's Dodgers are going to require the sort of unwavering vision that this contract gives their manager, and Mattingly will need that sort of vision if he has to bench Yasiel Puig for not paying attention, or replace closer Kenley Jansen with Brian Wilson, or pull Kershaw early from a game to protect his arm.
There are many tough choices ahead. Don Mattingly has always been unafraid to make those choices, but now he will be making them with the clear endorsement of his billion-dollar owners.
Donnie Baseball is now Donnie Boss.