Matheny Can Lead, But Can He Manage?

If, as the Cardinals have made clear with the hiring of Mike Matheny, actual coaching or managerial experience wasn’t necessary when making the hire of their new manager, they’ve picked a great man.

In telling Matheny during the interview process that the Cardinals manager’s position is a leadership position, they put a batting practice fastball right in his wheelhouse. In terms of leadership, Matheny the player is at the top of pretty much anybody’s list. He was revered here as the Cardinals catcher, and then went to San Francisco and garnered the same sort of adulation.

Matheny is as fine a man as I’ve met in a major-league clubhouse. He’s supportive of his teammates, respects those above him, and treats clubhouse workers, grounds crew members, umpires, media and everyone else he comes in contact with with the utmost respect. He committed to his family upon his early retirement, staying in St. Louis to coach them and be around as they grew up. In doing so, he rejected the opportunity to coach or manage full-time at the minor-league level.

After spending the last several years as a part-time roving catching instructor in the Cardinals system, Matheny told us several weeks ago that he realized that, at heart, he’s a teacher. He’s tremendous at working with catchers, and did a terrific job of carrying out Dave Duncan’s game plans with pitchers. Many observers, including me, believe that because of his way with pitchers, Matheny would have managed Rick Ankiel’s meltdown in the 2000 playoffs. Because of his demeanor, because of his leadership, many believe Matheny would have guided Ankiel through his troubles with much less tumult than he encountered.

He showed extraordinary support of Tony La Russa in 2003 when the Cardinals clubhouse fractured at the end of the season, going to the media to defend his boss. He was politically correct in regards to Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, two teammates caught up in baseball’s steroids scandal. And, he has John Wayne-type toughness that makes those around him more courageous. As Bob Ramsey says, Matheny is a foxhole guy, a guy you want to go to battle with.

In terms of respect, the coaches that have been on hand for a while: McGwire, Duncan, Joe Pettini, Dave McKay and Jose Oquendo, all appear to like and respect Matheny. If he does need help in terms of making moves, making pitching changes, dealing with the long-term issues of putting together a rotation, he would seem to have the support and respect of a staff that just won the World Series.

With his recent history in the Cardinals minor-league system, Matheny has already developed a relationship and knowledge of the coaches and managers at those levels. He’s obviously got the respect of the Cardinals hierarchy. He knows how the system operates from top to bottom, and knows of the players in that system.

So I don’t question the quality or leadership of Matheny. My only questions are in regards to his actual job title. He can lead people, but can he manage them? If Yadier Molina, as he did two years ago, blatantly fails to run out a ground ball, how does the new manager address the problem? If a young player thinks he has all the answers, like Colby Rasmus did, does Matheny ride it out, or make an effort to change things? If a player like Brendan Ryan becomes a distraction in the clubhouse, will Matheny be willing to either confront that player or go to management?

We always hear that when a player “loses it,” he’s the last to know. That happened with Jason Isringhausen and Ryan Franklin, and La Russa nearly had to be forced to part with those veteran closers. What happens when Chris Carpenter or Molina reach the same stage? Is Matheny prepared to manage people? Nobody knows until he actually has to confront those problems.

Baseball is in a new age. With the White Sox hiring Robin Ventura and the Cardinals hiring Matheny, the quality of the person, and knowledge of that person by the people doing the hiring, is paramount. Knowledge of how that person responds to baseball situations apparently isn’t as big of a deal. When to make a double switch, when to get a pitcher up or take him out, when to give a player a day off, when to pinch hit, who to bring in to a key situation … how those situations are dealt with apparently are secondary.

As Rangers manager Ron Washington says, “That’s how baseball go.” In terms of representing their organization in a top-flight manner, the Cardinals absolutely could not have done better than Matheny. We know that. What we don’t know will make for an interesting 2012 season and defense of the Cardinals’ 11th world championship.