One of the first things Tony La Russa did when he was hired to manage the Cardinals was to tell franchise icon Ozzie Smith it was time to step back.
1995 had been the Cardinals 8th straight year of not reaching the postseason. The 40-year-old Smith had battled a shoulder injury all year, finishing with just 44 games played, an OPS of .526 and the first (and only) negative WAR of his career.
With that as prelude, it’s no surprise that fellow (relative) newcomer Walt Jocketty traded for Giants Shortstop Royce Clayton in December. The writing was on the wall, but it fell to La Russa to communicate to Ozzie that the team was at least beginning to move on.
It went terribly. And it was exactly what the Cardinals needed.
You can read any number of accounts from the period, but the the crux of the dispute was that Ozzie felt he had been told he would be given the chance to win the starting job in spring training. Ozzie posted better spring numbers, yet Clayton would get the bulk of the playing time in 1996.
Smith and Clayton each contributed 1.6 WAR to the team and the Cardinals made their first postseason since 1987.
When asked early in the season how he would handle the delicate situation, La Russa said “I’ll just work it out sincerely. Sincere is the key word. My theory is that we’ll do whatever is best for the club.”
Ozzie Smith would dispute La Russa’s sincerity, but it would be hard to argue with the last part of that statement: Tony La Russa did what was best for the club. Whatever you thought of him personally, La Russa was always hell-bent on winning baseball games.
Consider also the case of Mark McGwire - a player who La Russa had nurtured since he was a rookie. When McGwire’s skills were diminished, in what would be his final at-bat, in Game 5 of the 2001 Division Series, Tony La Russa pinch-hit for him. He had Kerry Robinson bunt Jim Edmonds to 2nd base in the 9th inning of a tie game. La Russa didn’t feel a duty to “honor” this great player in what would likely be his final at-bat. He just desperately wanted to win that baseball game.
That is the mentality I want to see from Mike Shildt and the rest of the Cardinals organization.
One reading of the La Russa / Ozzie feud would be to dismiss it as a power move. La Russa showed up in prison and punched the biggest guy in the yard. And sure, there were elements of that. But it established that winning - WINNING - was more important than anything, even the graceful farewell of a franchise icon.
Compare that to the Cardinals of today, who seem devoted to showing deference to most any player with 5+ years of service time in St. Louis. Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Matt Carpenter, Michael Wacha... all of these players seem to have earned a permanent place in the starting lineup based on who they were in 2013. Even newcomers like Dexter Fowler and Paul Goldschmidt, by dint of being veterans, retain their spots in the lineup and batting order well past the time common sense would suggest dropping them.
I’m not saying the Cardinals should cut or bench all of these players. But too often, it seems like any move is not even on the table, because these guys have “earned their spot.”
The notion of “earning their spot” sounds nice, and rich with character, but it’s antithetical to trying to win tomorrow. Had Ozzie Smith earned a full-time starting spot on the 1996 Cardinals? On one hand, he was an undisputed Cardinal Legend and future Hall of Famer. On the other, he was a 41-year-old shortstop who had played 44 games below Replacement Level the season before.
Careers do not end gracefully - especially for great players. Ozzie Smith went out kicking and screaming. The great ones always do - it’s the very thing that makes them great. But they all do end. It’s the job of the entire organization - and the dirty work may ultimately fall to the manager - to remember that the team is bigger than any player, no matter how legendary.
Adam Wainwright has been raging against the dying of the light for four seasons. Yadier Molina will turn 37 as the 2nd half begins, and currently sits at 0.0 fWAR. Michael Wacha has been serviceable in three of his last four starts, but just to get to serviceable he had to remain in the rotation, performing terribly, for most of the first half of the season.
It takes a strong manager - coupled with a strong front office - to tell those great players the team is moving on. The players won’t agree. And often, the players do have a little left in the tank. But the question for the ball club always has to be: Can we do better?
I’m a big fan of Mike Shildt. I have tremendous respect for the path he took to where he is. I love the way he talks about the game and represents the Cardinals. And I believe he is a very good coach. The way the base running, defense and bullpen usage have improved on his watch is noteworthy.
But the most essential function of the manager is to assert yourself as the ultimate authority in the clubhouse, hell-bent on winning with the 25 guys the front office has handed you. This front office is not always doing Shildt any favors with this roster, making a run of bad trades and mediocre free agent acquisitions, and too often doubling-down on the sunk costs of those bad acquisitions.
Even so, I’m waiting to see Shildt make the kind of bold move that Tony La Russa did when he benched Ozzie Smith, or when he pressured the front office to trade away a cheap young asset like Colby Rasmus because he wasn’t doing enough to help the team win RIGHT NOW.
This team is floundering. It has been floundering for two months. It has been floundering for four years. Now is not the time to show deference to the veterans that have been there through that slide. Now is the time for bold moves.