During the Blues’ 2016-2017 season, coach Ken Hitchcock was grating on his team. Hitch is a taskmaster, and his drive was wearing on the players.
Veteran Troy Brouwer recognized this and, as legend has it, said to his coach “Why don’t you just go away for about three days?” Hitchcock to a certain degree did, and the team developed leadership from within the locker room that helped them advance to the NHL Western Conference Finals. While the coach was still the coach, the players set the personality and tenor of the room, which worked to the team’s advantage.
In reading between the lines in the fine reporting by Jesus Ortiz at STLToday.com, something similar may have happened to precipitate the Cardinal hot streak in which they won eight-of-nine and briefly moved into a first-place tie with Chicago in the National League Central.
When Yadier Molina approached Adam Wainwright and asked if the team needed a players-only dinner, there had to be a recognition that manager Mike Matheny’s leadership and motivation weren’t doing the job by itself.
One of the most difficult things for managers or coaches to educate young players about is how an organization has had so much success. Mike Martz ran into that problem with the Rams in the early 2000’s. The team was good for a sustained period, and some young players arrived and essentially thought “Well, I’m a Ram. We’re going to win all the time.” Those players didn’t recognize the hard work that had gone into building the foundation for all that winning, and didn’t know how to work hard enough to sustain the success.
The Cardinals have had great success in large part because of a culture that was cultivated half a century ago by George Kissell.
From Kissell to Dave Ricketts to Red Schoendienst, Whitey Herzog, Joe Torre and Tony LaRussa, the expectation of winning has always been a part of Cardinal baseball. But in most cases when the team has won, it’s because of great leadership in the clubhouse. Orlando Cepeda and Roger Maris were added in large part for their leadership, which helped them win the 1967 World Series.
In 1982, guys like George Hendrick, Gene Tenace and Darrell Porter had done a lot of winning before they arrived in St. Louis. Keith Hernandez, Tom Herr and Ken Oberkfell worked under Kissell in the minors, and that combination of leadership helped Herzog take care of a clubhouse that he clearly had the ear of. During the celebration of the 1987 N.L. Champs over the weekend, the common theme about Herzog was that he was an extraordinary communicator and manager of men.
LaRussa had his share of leaders that worked under Kissell too, including himself. When the Cardinals started going to World Series, it was people like Chris Carpenter, Jim Edmonds and Larry Walker, veteran clubhouse presences, that helped show Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Molina and Wainwright what winning leadership is all about.
This team has a lot of young players that have arrived from Memphis over the last couple of years. They’ve grown up in an organization that’s been in the playoffs for most of their time in the organization. It’s understandable that some would arrive on the scene and think what they did in the minors is good enough to succeed at the major league level.
When Molina and Wainwright got together for that dinner in Cincinnati, it was as much about their manager as it was them. Those two are the only players that have been around for the last three World Series appearances and two wins, so they’re big voices in the clubhouse. Matheny admits that he has trouble having fun (he doesn’t seem to laugh much) and that’s one of the obvious tenets during this team’s run.
A young player up from Memphis is going to reflect his manager, and with the Cardinals that’s a stern, serious, businesslike approach. The club has chess boards in its locker room. What does that tell you about their environment?
The leaders among the players aren’t necessarily betraying their manager, they’re enhancing the environment. A group that’s having fun and has a chance to win is going to buy in more, especially what that group has so many young players.
When you see the joy that Wainwright and Molina bring to the game, you can see that they’re loose and having fun. So rather than take the cue from their manager, it seems like it’s important and sensible for guys like Tommy Pham, Paul DeJong, Luke Voit and even Kolten Wong to emulate the established leaders, along with Dexter Fowler and Carlos Martinez, in making the culture fun and loose.
Matheny is still the manager. He still sets the philosophy on the field. But it would seem the players recognized that, in a game that requires “relaxed intensity,” there might have been a little too much intensity and a little too little relaxation.
The players told Ortiz they’re playing for each other now, they’re playing as a unit rather than as individuals.
The Cardinals still aren’t as talented as the Cubs, Nationals or Dodgers, but they’re getting the most out of the talent they have over the last couple of weeks. And if they keep that up, and the Cubs keep squandering their ability, the Redbirds have a chance to be in the playoff hunt in the final week of the season.