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Mike Matheny, the St. Louis Cardinals, and Telling Yourself to Go to Hell

June 22, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny (far left) watches from the dugout against the Kansas City Royals during the fourth inning at Kauffman Stadium.  Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-US PRESSWIRE
June 22, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny (far left) watches from the dugout against the Kansas City Royals during the fourth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-US PRESSWIRE

The author John O'Hara—Appointment in Samarra, some wonderful stories and novellas, and a bunch of huge novels nobody reads anymore—said a lot of uncomplimentary things about a lot of occupations, individuals, and intangible concepts, but this is the one that's always stuck with me: "Once you have finished a story, there's only one way to improve it: tell the editor to go to hell."

In the five years or so since I first read that I've become an editor myself, and for that among other reasons I'm no longer so convinced by the, uh, forcefulness of his language as I was as an angry undergraduate-slash-literary-radical. But every time I edit something I think about that quote, and I think that's made me a better editor; it's not true, but it comes from some truth. Editing is valuable, but too much editing—the most satisfying editing, usually, the too-perfect, peacocky editing—can make a piece worse.

After the Cardinals' seventh inning, then, I would not be averse to some angrier blogger (perhaps with a long-standing inferiority complex and an intense desire to win the Nobel Prize) suggesting that the only way to improve a Major League Baseball team is to tell the manager to go to hell. It's not accurate, but I would feel more comfortable, in the late innings, if Mike Matheny were occasionally struck by the thought.

Eduardo Sanchez has four intentional walks already, in 16 appearances. After Monday night he's at a 5.78 unintentional walk per nine inning pace. Intentionally walking a batter to load the bases makes you feel in control of a situation, at least if Baseball Mogul is any indication; you're putting the double play in order, getting the right matchup at the plate, making it possible to end the inning with only one situation you didn't control, instead of two.

Really, though, you're just giving your pitcher less control. Now he can't get the first batter out; more importantly, now he can't give up any unintentional walks, which is especially problematic when his arsenal consists of a 95-mph fastball that's almost a strike and a wipeout slider that's almost almost a strike.

When you bring in a pinch hitter who's not as good as the batter he's replacing for a fleeting platoon advantage you're doing the same thing—in exchange for the appearance of control over a readily apparent situation, you're giving up control over a bunch of less-apparent, equally important situations. This isn't a great bullpen, and it's not a deep roster out in center field, but these situations are made worse when Mike Matheny attempts this kind of clumsy triage.

Managers do important work like editors do important work, and if Tony La Russa's reputation is worth anything they have the ability to put players into situations where they're equipped to succeed. For instance: Matheny's given Tyler Greene nearly as many plate appearances against lefties as he has righties; that's a simple, worthwhile move, and it's paid off.

But most of the things managers can do during the game are counterproductive. Sacrifice bunts and intentional walks both give the other team an out in exchange for something of dubious value; bringing in defensive replacements and pinch hitters wipes out players who are in the lineup in the first place because they're better than the other options. The best editing is silent; when I'm working with a really good editor he's not just making changes, he seems to be working from a version of my story that's slightly clearer than the one on my hard drive.

Mike Matheny is perfectly welcome to offer me John O'Hara's advice in response to all this, but he's frustrated me, so far, because he's been excellent at all the things a manager should be doing in the first place. Here's how I've started to imagine the ideal role for a manager: He should make sure he has the best roster the organization can muster; he should moderate the personalities of his individual players and the tone of the clubhouse as a whole; he should use his lineup, game by game, to maximize each player's strengths and minimize his weaknesses. And once the game starts, and only until it ends, he should go to hell.