Cardinal manager Mike Matheny made headlines, especially here at 101Sports.com last week in an interview with our friend Mark Saxon of ESPN.com. Colleagues Bernie Miklasz and Kevin Wheeler took the skipper to task for some of the things he said about his young players, and his criticism of the media.
I will admit that I’m a fan of the results Matheny gets. Are his methods unconventional and unpopular? Yes. But, does Matheny have the highest winning percentage of any active manager during his four-year run? Yes, he does. Has he taken his team to the playoffs 80% of the time? Yes, he has. As a fan, I want my team to be competitive as often as possible and to win their fair share of games. And with Matheny managing, regardless of how you want to slice it up, the Cardinals have a .569 winning percentage. Jeff Bannister of Texas is second among active guys with a .565 clip in his first two years. Joe Girardi is third at .554. As I’ve mentioned in the past, there are twelve men that have managed Major League games since 1900 with better winning percentages than Matheny, and nine of them are in the Hall of Fame, so he’s pretty good.
But nobody is perfect, and some of what he said in Saxon’s piece bothered me too. Maybe not as much as Bernie and Kevin, but there are some things.
Mike Matheny: “In the conversations I’ve had with Dexter, I want to be clear I’m not putting the responsibility of the club on his shoulders.”
Me: Dexter Fowler relates with glee how, before every game, Cubs manager Joe Maddon would come to him and say “you go, we go,” meaning we perform well when you perform well. That’s what we used to say about Lou Brock when he was the Cardinal leadoff man, so goes Lou, so go the Cardinals. Fowler doesn’t mind that. He enjoyed it with the World Champions. He LIKES the idea of responsibility being on his shoulders. Mike, you can steal something from Maddon. Tell Fowler, “you go, we go.” It’s OK.
MM: “I watch how (Fowler) plays, and there’s a great mix of intelligence and professionalism, but he also has fun playing the game. I’m envious of guys like that, because it wasn’t anything I was capable of doing, and I struggle with in the job I have now.”
Me: This is a GAME. It’s should be fun. Some people aren’t predisposed to having a good time. Tony LaRussa wasn’t when he was the Cardinal manager, until the very end of his career. And LaRussa did a great job of staying out of the clubhouse and letting players have their fun. While this group has liked being led by Matheny and play hard for him, it’s important to stay de-stressed during a sixth month season. If you see a tightly wound leader every day, you’re probably going to be tightly wound. Because that’s the case, it’d be a good idea to let players, especially veterans like Fowler and Adam Wainwright, lead the club in their own, fun way.
MM: This is the one that got a lot of people riled up: “It’s amazing how little regard people actually put into how many young players we put on the field last year. The conversation kept going all season long without people really acknowledging it. We had to throw Aledmys Diaz into the lineup at the last second when he had spent the previous season at Double-A. Kolten [Wong] really hasn’t found the traction in the league yet. Those two guys were in the middle. We had to search to find a center fielder, and Randal Grichuk hadn’t spent a full season in the big leagues. Our right fielder [Stephen Piscotty] hadn’t spent a full season in the big leagues. Four of the eight position players were in the minor leagues the previous year. Everyone wants to hold them to the level of consistency, and they’re not polished veterans yet. It’s absurd. We had smart people covering our team who don’t want to give that much credit. They don’t understand the importance of experience. It just takes time. They’re being asked to do something completely different at every level.”
Me: First of all, I brought this youth up during The Fast Lane (not as an excuse, though) to the point of boring MYSELF. I can’t tell you how many times I talked about how young the Cardinals were, how half of their starting lineup and so many pitchers were 26 and under. But we also have to point out reality. While Diaz, Wong, Grichuk and Piscotty were young last year, so were Maddon’s Cubs. In fact, Maddon’s lineup for Game Seven of the World Series…GAME SEVEN…included Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Willson Contreras and Javier Baez, all of whom were minor leaguers in 2015, and hadn’t spent a full season in the majors before last year. Maddon used Carl Edwards, who didn’t come up until late June, in the tenth inning of game seven with a two run lead. So the excuse of having to play inexperienced players isn’t flying with me.
Yes, there are intelligent people covering the Cardinals. Our own Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com, Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch and Mark Saxon are all very smart. Bernie Miklasz and Kevin Wheeler are as astute as any baseball observers in the media. But it isn’t their job to provide excuses. As Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells used to say, “don’t tell me about the labor. Just show me the baby.”
That’s what Matheny needs to do. Let Fowler do what he did for a World Champion. Matheny shouldn’t let his demeanor and lack of ability to have fun spoil the game for the people working for him. And don’t give Cardinal Nation excuses. Get your guys to play well and play hard, and everything will take care of itself.