After reaching the peak of success in 2011, the Cardinals front office faced an arduous task—replacing Tony La Russa. Certainly, filling the void left by one of baseball’s greatest minds would not be simple. The manager who had become baseball royalty, had left no heir-apparent to his throne. Fundamental baseball was the only law; winning the only pursuit.
Passing over then Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona and a pair of third-base coaches (Jose Oquendo and Joe McEwing), Cardinals leadership decided on a man with no major league experience: Mike Matheny.
The Gold Glove catcher turned manager did not begin with perfect approval. Yet that did not keep him from a successful start. Matheny became the first manager in history to lead a team to the playoffs in his first 4 seasons. From 2013 to 2015, his team won 3 straight NL Central titles and in August of 2015 Baseball America wrote that other National League managers and coaches had voted him the second-best manager in the league. He was a wunderkind—reaching 400 wins early in his fifth year.
Unable to maintain such a torrid pace, the droning of spectators soon grew to a clamor. Fans were quick to point out Matheny’s inability to manage a bullpen and his success at overworking relievers. His shortcomings in lineup construction—refusing to adjust to his players’s strengths—became a serious inadequacy. Perhaps even more frustrating has been the manager’s seeming ineptitude—sticking with a struggling player because he is one of “Mike’s guys.”
Despite receiving praise in the past from veterans such as Lance Berkman for his presence as a leader and for commanding the team atmosphere, Matheny may have lost the support of the clubhouse in late July when he appeared to criticize Yadier Molina, calling him tired. And in the same week he may have lost what little outside support he had left when he described fans as “bitter.”
Fans who now cry for Matheny’s firing with every move have become more widespread than those willing to voice support for the manager with 21 postseason wins in 5 years. But for a minute on Wednesday night, all of that seemed to change—or at least pause.
In the middle of a late-inning at-bat during an important game at Fenway, umpire Chris Segal called time on his own because he needed a “break.” Molina was fuming and turned to face the man who had been calling questionable balls and dubious strikes all night. Matheny flew out of the dugout. His primary objective was not to confront the umpire, but to come to the defense of his player—to protect his catcher, perhaps the most important player on his team, from being ejected.
The oft-criticized manager accomplished his goal—Molina remained in the game—and then he proceeded to fight for the rest of his team, reportedly yelling at Segal “It’s not your show, man! Nobody is here to watch you!” before he was finally thrown out of the game. It was refreshing to see Matheny, who constantly preaches about urgency, actually show it himself. That’s how you lead a team.
For a manager praised by the front office for his leadership ability, but derided by fans for a lack thereof, this was an important moment. An occasion made more significant considering his team, in the middle of a tumultuous season, is still in contention for a playoff birth.
With 41 games remaining, the Cardinals only face 2 teams that have records above .500: the Milwaukee Brewers and the Chicago Cubs. As their wild card prospects shrink, the Cardinals currently sit 5 games out of the second spot, it is these two teams the Cardinals must chase down to win the Central and secure a playoff birth. Matheny and the Cardinals are no strangers to NL Central titles, but the team yearns for a leader.
The leader this team needs down the stretch must be able to create an excitement, a heightened awareness that inspires toughness—a resolve that takes this team to the next level. Matheny’s ejection on Wednesday night certainly created a necessary sense of urgency. Every play from a routine grounder to taking the extra base is now critical. And it will fall on Matheny’s shoulders to lead the rest of the way as he did on Wednesday—with a sense of urgency. Once again, fundamental baseball is the only law; winning the only pursuit.