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Matheny's tenure holds lessons for Cardinals

July 15, 2018

It is very easy now, nearly seven years later and in the wake of the Cardinals dismissing their manager for the first time in more than 23 years, to forget that Mike Matheny made a ton of sense for the team back in November 2011. The Cards had just won

It is very easy now, nearly seven years later and in the wake of the Cardinals dismissing their manager for the first time in more than 23 years, to forget that Mike Matheny made a ton of sense for the team back in November 2011. The Cards had just won the World Series two weeks earlier in the most dramatic fashion imaginable -- and within a week of that championship, Tony La Russa, their Hall of Fame manager, retired.
Matheny had never managed at any level above Little League when the Cardinals hired him. He had, however, written a well-regarded handbook for the parents of his players called, "The Matheny Manifesto," which earned him considerable respect in the St. Louis community -- where he had lived since retiring from baseball because of concussion-related symptoms.
(A quick side note on the infamous manifesto, now that all this is over: It is intense. The word "fun" is used only once in the document -- and solely to implore parents to tell their kids they "hoped" they had fun, not to determine whether they actually did. Matheny had his issues as a big league manager. But heavens, he was far better equipped to coach grown men than growing boys. But I digress. I have just been wanting to say this for a while.)
Matheny was well-liked as a Cardinals player and a mentor for Yadier Molina -- who, other than Jose Pujols (who had not yet signed with the Angels when the Cards hired Matheny), was the most important Cardinal in 2011. He had a direct connection to La Russa, who loved him, and was a regular at Spring Training -- an honor given to only the most beloved alumni.
There were four other candidates to be La Russa's successor (listed with their status at the time): Recently dismissed Red Sox manager Terry Francona, Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo, Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg and White Sox coach Joe McEwing. But Matheny was the slam-dunk winner. Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said at Matheny's opening press conference, "Through it all, we came back to one person -- and when I think back to all the people we spoke with, all the due diligence we put into this, all arrows pointed to Mike."
While giddy Cardinals fans, still loopy in the wake of that World Series win, probably would have cheered the hiring of a random barnyard animal as the team's manager, there was little backlash to Matheny's hiring -- and reasonably so. Every bit of information Mozeliak had pointed to Matheny. But the thing about hiring a new manager, particularly one without any experience in the dugout, is that you are essentially making a bet that the person you are hiring now will still be that person in five years. You can be as smart as Mozeliak, but you are still guessing.
Mozeliak made five big assumptions when he hired Matheny -- ones that Cardinals fans, buoyed by two titles in six years and faith in the front office's wisdom, went along with. It turned out that these assumptions were wrong. Matheny was not the manager the team thought it was getting. In many ways, he was the opposite.
Assumption No. 1: He will be terrific with young players
The Cardinals, after their 2006 World Series win, faced a major problem: They needed to figure out a way to re-sign Pujols when he was a free agent in a few years without being, you know, the Yankees. The solution was to concentrate on the farm system, considered one of baseball's worst in '06. If the Cards were to keep Pujols, they'd need cheap young players everywhere else. So they brought in Jeff Luhnow and his gaggle of data geniuses to revamp the entire Minor League system -- and it worked. The farm system, at the bottom of baseball's rankings in '06, was at the top by '11. Matheny had worked with many of these young players as a Minor League instructor the previous season, something Mozeliak specifically pointed to.
"A Matthew Holliday and a Lance Berkman, they don't need to be over-managed, if you will," Mozeliak told ESPN. "So I think [Matheny is] going to be able to put his energy into the players that most need it, and to the team itself. That was something we factored in."
It did not turn out this way. Matheny's distrust of young players was legendary -- from Kolten Wong to Tommy Pham to Randal Grichuk. Numerous young players, most notably Wong, talked about how they felt because they hadn't earned Matheny's "veteran respect," they had no idea what their status with the team was -- whether they'd be in the lineup or not, and whether they were about to be sent down. Veterans were given a near-limitless amount of time to work out of slumps, while kids were benched after one bad day. Matheny also didn't help his cause by having an openly old-school mindset. By the end, the "great with young players" manager was calling out rookies today for being "soft."

Assumption No. 2: He will have the respect of everyone in the clubhouse
Matheny's teammates loved him as a player, so much so that David Freese called him, "Captain America." Matheny was tough and hard as nails as a catcher. He once famously took a fastball in the jaw, shook it off and jogged to first base. He also received plaudits for being a clubhouse leader -- most notably after Darryl Kile's sudden, tragic death in 2002. Every teammate raved about him. Who wouldn't want to play for that guy?
As it turned out, tons of people. The first couple of years of Matheny's tenure ran smoothly -- mostly because the Cards were winning and because many players were, in fact, Matheny's peers (he was the youngest manager at the time he was hired). But as the age difference between Matheny and his players grew, the more rifts there were. This season began with Pham criticizing Matheny (and Cardinals management) in the pages of Sports Illustrated. William Fowler and Matheny were reportedly not speaking to each other. MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal reported many players found Matheny "defensive when challenged." Molina openly questioned Matheny on Instagram last season. While Matheny was supposed to be a calming, taciturn, positive clubhouse presence compared to La Russa, he ended up having far more internal discord go public than his predecessor ever did.
Assumption No. 3: He will be better with the media than La Russa
La Russa's postgame media scrums were legendary, and there wasn't a reporter or TV personality who wasn't the target of his fury at one point or another. By the end of his time in St. Louis, his scowling visage was the first thing you thought of when you thought of the Cardinals -- an angry older guy yelling at everybody. Matheny was young, handsome, and affable -- in other words, the perfect face for the organization.
But reporters found out quickly they sort of missed La Russa's forthright surliness. While LaRussa may have hollered at you from time to time, you always knew where you stood with him. Matheny never got comfortable in front of cameras or with journalists. Contrast him with, say, Aaron Boone of the Yankees -- a fellow managing neophyte who nevertheless understands being the public face of the franchise with the media is a massive part of the job. It is a job that benefits everyone when it is done right.
Again, this flared up at the end, too, with the story about Bud Norris and Jordan Hicks' difficult relationship exploding right when Matheny was already under fire. He threw gas on the story's fire, at first -- providing a shrugging dismissal of any issue that seemed to endorse bullying of young players. Then, after the story blew up on him, Matheny tried to blame it on "inaccurate reporting." He had fewer friends in the media after six years than he did when he started. The supposed uniter had become the most divisive figure in the organization by the end.
Assumption No. 4: Strategic deficiencies can be papered over as he learns on the job
Few thought Matheny would be a great tactician from the beginning, considering he'd never managed before. But he was considered smart and, more important, open to learning. His early struggles with excessive bunting, bullpen management and, especially, his near obsession with the double-switch were mostly excused, by his bosses and fans alike. "He's learning. He'll get there."
Unfortunately, Matheny never got there. He stopped bunting as much as the years went along, but everything else mostly stayed the same. Matheny had a series of high-profile postseason missteps, starting with problems in the 2013 World Series and culminating in his head-scratching decision to bring in Michael Wacha, who hadn't pitched in a month, in a decisive Game 5 against the Giants in the '14 National League Championship Series -- a decision that remains inexplicable four years later and one that arguably could have gotten some managers fired on the spot.
Assumption No. 5: He will be so grateful for the opportunity, the front office can control him
Like many managers today, Matheny was meant to be, in some ways, a tool of the front office -- the clubhouse liaison who put front-office theories into practice. This is not uncommon: It is the manager as middle manager.
After the Cardinals' World Series trip in 2013, though, something about Matheny changed: He became more confident, which would ordinarily be a good thing. In this case, it seemed to put him philosophically at odds with the Cards' sabermetrically-inclined front office. Regularly, Mozeliak and Co. would make a move, only to have it undercut by Matheny -- who was much fonder of "playing the hot hand" or trusting veterans to play their way through struggles. Matheny was a trust-the-gut manager in a game that no longer values that as a legitimate strategy.

Mozeliak had the best intentions when he hired Matheny -- who certainly had his moments. Not every manager gets his team to the World Series. Matheny never embarrassed the organization in an ugly, off-the-field sense, and his exit interview was understated, professional and above-board: It's the way you'd want anyone to exit a job. And by the end, most fans were happy Matheny finally did.
When you hire a manager based on what you hope he will become -- rather than what you already know him to be -- you are, essentially, guessing. Mozeliak hired Matheny for the right reasons. He just turned out to be the wrong match. It happens. It's tough to admit you're wrong, that your bet didn't work out. Whoever he is ... expect the Cardinals' next manager to be hired based on a lot less on hope this time.

Will Leitch is a columnist for