Mike Matheny’s late night firing by the St. Louis Cardinals came as a major surprise. Even those who watch the team closely were shocked by the move. Indeed, just 15 minutes before Matheny was fired, St. Louis writer and radio host Bernie Miklasz -- an excellent source for what’s going on with the Cards -- tweeted that, if the Cardinals did make a move to shake the team up, it’d be by dumping a coach and that Matheny would most likely be dealt with after the season ended. His subsequent shock that Matheny was, indeed, given his walking papers was mirrored by many who know the Cardinals well.
Yet, as soon as the move happened, most Cardinals observers’ reaction was, basically, “OK, that’s understandable.” The act and timing of Matheny being fired was rather startling, but the need for him to go seems, in the immediate aftermath, to make all the sense in the world. For a number of reasons.
The big picture reason is pretty straightforward: the Cardinals are playing some seriously bad baseball. At the moment they are 47-46, seven and a half games out of first place in the NL Central and four back -- with several teams ahead of them -- for the second Wild Card. As it stands, they are poised to miss the playoffs for the third year in a row, which has not happened to the Cardinals this century. The last time that happened was between 1997-99, early in Tony La Russa’s tenure. After that they were playing October baseball in 12 of the next 16 seasons, winning the World Series twice. Simply put, there are high expectations in St. Louis, and Matheny’s Cardinals were not meeting them.
That above-.500 record is masking far worse play of late. The club started off 20-12 and has gone 27-34 since. They’ve dropped two of three against the woeful Royals, two of three against the Marlins and three of four to the Twins. Eight of their early season wins came against the Reds when Cincinnati was playing the worst baseball of any club in the majors this year. Friday night and last night, however, they were basically humiliated by that Reds team at home in Busch Stadium, losing 9-1 and 8-2, respectively, while making a ton of mistakes, both mental and otherwise, and while playing profoundly uninspired baseball. The Cardinals blog Viva El Birdos’ recap of last night’s game said the club simply gave up, and called the performance the team’s “nadir” of 2018. That was written before Matheny was fired, by the way. Yes, the Cardinals have been losing, but more significant than the losing has been the ugly, lethargic and uninspired manner in which the Cardinals have lost and the fact that they have lost so many times to teams they should be beating.
So, fine, the team is losing. But players play the game, not managers, right? Can we not look at the team’s stat lines and find underachieving players for whom Matheny, like so many other fired managers, is taking the fall? Can we not say that if Tommy Pham, Dexter Fowler, Marcel Ozuna and Kolten Wong were all hitting better that Matheny would be spending the All-Star break consulting with the front office regarding what the team needs at the trade deadline to make a playoff push as opposed to going fishing?
Not in this case. Yes, a lot of players are underachieving, but the front office is clearly blaming Matheny and his motivational tactics -- or the lack thereof -- for that. And for good reason.
Last week there was a story in The Athletic detailing the harsh manner in which veteran reliever Bud Norris was treating young reliever Jordan Hicks, “badgering” Hicks, and treating him “mercilessly.” Matheny gave several quotes in the article clearly showing that he approved, calling it “old school” and lamenting the alleged lack of toughness in today’s game and, by implication, in today’s players. Norris’ treatment of Hicks was couched as a veteran motivating a rookie, but as I noted in my post responding to that, if one read between the lines it came off as intimidation, not mentoring, and Matheny’s approval of it was appalling. I was not alone in that assessment and, indeed, at some point after it was published, the headline of The Athletic story was changed to refer to Norris and Matheny’s old school approach as “divisive.”
Bernie Miklaz tweeted overnight that the front office was less-than-pleased with how Matheny came off in that story, reflecting a larger disconnect between his approach on the one hand and what both management and players want on the other:
That (3/3) whenever Matheny gets on the soapbox with old-school preaching that’s a huge turnoff to young players, it reinforced team’s rep as uptight, stressed, humorless and not a fun place to play.— Bernie Miklasz (@miklasz) July 15, 2018
That’s why I was astonished by the attacks on @markasaxon ; without Matheny running his mouth and all but bragging over having Bud Norris being his enforcer/snitch, Saxon had much less to build his piece around. Today’s players are different. This manager never got that.— Bernie Miklasz (@miklasz) July 15, 2018
It was already widely reported that Matheny and outfielder Dexter Fowler have not been on speaking terms for some time, but it would not be at all shocking if, in the coming days, we learned that Matheny had lost far many more members of the clubhouse than just Fowler.
Such a dynamic, by the way, does not just cost managers of losing teams their jobs. Just ask Joe Girardi, who the Yankees declined to retain after last season despite coming within a game of the World Series. The sense was that, like Matheny, the younger players on the club were not responding to his old school style. Given how much more important younger players are in today’s game than they used to be, that’s simply not a tenable position for a manager to be in. It’s also, by the way, why the inevitable, immediate calls for Joe Girardi to get the Cardinals job seem rather silly.
Managing the St. Louis Cardinals has, historically, come with a high degree of job security. Only two men -- Matheny and La Russa -- have held the job over the past 23 seasons. That job security, however, is a function of winning, and Mike Matheny simply is not winning. While that could be overlooked for a time -- just as the front office has, for years, overlooked Matheny’s more venial sins, such as his often poor bullpen management and his less-than-stellar tactical moves -- it couldn’t be overlooked when the losing was ugly and when he was losing the clubhouse.
Those things, for any manager, are . . . Cardinal sins.