On June 22, 2014, the twelve year anniversary of Darryl Kile's sudden and tragic death, I found myself in a Busch Stadium conference room, surrounded by forty or so members of the Cardinals blogging community. General manager John Mozeliak and team president Bill DeWitt III had made themselves available for a handful of questions prior to the team's Sunday afternoon contest against the Philadelphia Phillies. Fortunately, I was able to ask one of Mr. Mozeliak, one of the best, most straight-forward GMs in the league. Little did we know at the time, but the question and especially Mo's answer would become eerily relevant a mere four and a half months later:
Joe Schwarz: Mr. Mozeliak, twelve years ago today, TLR was dealt with one of the toughest situations this organization has ever faced. What qualities in Mike Matheny do you see that would make him able to handle a tough situation as well as Tony Did?
John Mozeliak: You referring to [Darryl] Kile? Well, I think when you look back at that time period, Mike was also one of those key spokesmen during that period. If anybody went to the funeral, [Mike] was also one of the speakers. You know, Mike’s a tremendous leader. He’s someone that understands people and relates very well. Situations like that you hope you never have to repeat, you never have to see again, but that is sort of his wheelhouse when it comes to leadership. What you get from Mike as a day-to-day manager, I think that’s sort of the evolution that we are watching, but something along those lines? There’s probably no one else I’d rather see.
Just two days ago, Ben discussed the idea of bringing Joe Maddon, one of the league's most renowned tacticians, in as a replacement for Matheny going forward. The reasonable conclusion of his article? "Almost certainly not." Now, after the tragic passing of 22-year-old Oscar Taveras, the choice at manager has never been clearer. For the foreseeable future, Mike Matheny is the guy. Outside of a virtually impossible return of Tony La Russa, there is not a single manager I would rather have leading this club through this tragedy, and I truly mean that.
Is Matheny's tactical decision making still very much a work in progress? Absolutely. Mozeliak and Matheny will both attest to that. However, beyond lineup making, depth chart development, and bullpen management, there is the utmost importance of being a well-respected leader of (at least) 25 men. This characteristic is exactly what the front office sold us on when Matheny was hired three years ago as the replacement for a living legend. Have there been instances that have led to doubts about Matheny's leadership over the last three seasons? You bet, but at the same time, we have very little clue what happens behind closed locker room doors, and hundreds of quotes from players provide solid evidence to what the front office told us three years ago.
Looking ahead, if the front office fills the active roster from within, the projected average age of the 2015 Cardinals will be a tick less than 27 years old—making St. Louis one of the top three youngest clubs in all of baseball. Matheny is not dealing with 25 different machines or statistical projections here, either. He is dealing with 25 human beings, with real life memories and real life emotions.
By my count, at least 18 probable returning members of the active roster have spent varying amounts of time with Taveras in the minor leagues, and the remaining seven got to know him quite this past season. Ten members are within three years of age of Taveras, full of a young exuberance, similar to what we saw from Oscar just two plus weeks ago. What Matheny is now dealing with is nowhere to be found when looking through an MLB manager's job description. Yet, Matheny admirably dealt with it before (with DK57), and this experience helps solidify him as the best candidate for dealing with it again. The Cardinals will trudge forward with Matheny calm at the helm.
Plus, Matheny's first full statement on the subject matter, via the St. Louis Cardinals, couldn't have been more perfect:
I was asked last night to give some words regarding the tragic death of Oscar Taveras, but I just simply couldn't.
First of all, it felt like a bad dream that could not be real, and when reality kicked in, my words didn't even seem to make sense. To say this is a horrible loss of a life ended too soon would be an understatement. To talk about the potential of his abilities seemed to be untimely. All I wanted to do was get the guys together and be with our baseball family. I know the hurt that comes along with buying into the brotherhood of a baseball team. That hurt is just as powerful as the joys that come with this life. Not to say it is even close to the depth of pain his true family is going through, but the pain itself is just as real. The ache is deep because the relationships were deep, and forged through time and trials.
To the many fans who have already reached out with condolences, and to the many more who are in mourning, thank you for taking these players in, like they are one of your own. This level of care is what sets our fans apart.
In my opinion, the word "love" is the most misused, and misunderstood word in the English language. It is not popular for men to use this word, and even less popular for athletes. But, there is not a more accurate word for how a group of men share a deep and genuine concern for each other. We loved Oscar, and he loved us. That is what a team does, that is what a family does. You will be missed, Oscar.
I encourage everyone to step back from the statistics for a while and appreciate the situation the Cardinals are in given the terrible circumstances. Not many organizations can recover quickly from tragedies such as this one, but with a solid foundation already laid, and Matheny at the helm, El Birdos will move forward, and it's each one of our jobs to keep up.
On a personal note, I was only able to see Oscar play in person on one occasion. Living in Indianapolis while I finish out my PharmD at Butler University makes being a Cardinals fan difficult at times. Thus, one day in July, the twelfth to be exact, I bought a pair of tickets the morning of the game so that I could see Oscar and the Cardinals take on the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, with a win bringing the team into a tie at the top of the National League Central.
Mandatory GIF credit: @mstreeter06
The result: One relatively harmless single (off a 94 MPH fastball, no less) in five at bats. Not that big of a deal, right? Well, to me, it was a single that I will remember forever. If Fox Sports Midwest (the game was actually on Fox Sports One apparently) had tracked its exit-velocity, I'm pretty sure this one would have neared an astounding 110 MPH. As many scouts have noted over the years and as we had just begun to witness firsthand, the ball sounded and tracked differently off Oscar's barrel. Nearly every time he made contact, it was violent harmony.
Rest in peace, Oscar Taveras. Rest in peace.