The Cardinals dropped the Mike this weekend.
And the John and the Bill. In a cleaning house move, Manager Mike Matheny, Hitting Coach John Mabry and Assistant Hitting Coach Bill Mueller were all relieved of duties by the St. Louis Cardinals Saturday night.
I can’t say the writing wasn’t on the wall. However, it was still surreal to watch it happen.
This is a Cardinals team that hasn’t fired a manager in 23 years. The last time it happened, I was 8 years old.
That happened to be Joe Torre in the 1995 season. Torre, by the way, went on to win the 1996 World Series with the New York Yankees and went on to win three more in 1998, 1999 and 2000.
But the move brought us Tony La Russa, who turned out to be a pretty good manager in his own right, delivering World Series Championships to St. Louis in 2006 and 2011.
It took La Russa 10 years to win that first championship in St. Louis. For an organization to show that kind of patience in a manager for a decade is almost unheard of these days. Most organizations follow a model of win fast or get out and we’ll try to find somebody else who will.
That’s not been the Cardinals way. The Cardinals are comparable to the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers in that way. The Steelers have had three head coaches dating back to 1969 — Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and current Head Coach Mike Tomlin. Noll and Cowher were only replaced when they decided to retire.
I had started to think of the Cardinals as that kind of organization. It’s somewhat of an unrealistically romantic notion though for a team to stick with its coach through thick and thin when you see other professional sports franchises trading out managers and coaches every two to three years, if not sooner.
However, that notion seemed to tie in well with the Cardinals’ knack for remaining a contender despite not going out and spending top dollar for free agents every offseason. St. Louis has been able to rely on homegrown talent for the most part during the past 20 years and in the event that they haven’t, they’ve relied almost exclusively on trades from other ballclubs to restock the roster instead of buying away their assets from under them in free agency.
Part of the reason I’ve been so proud to be a Cardinals fan is because the Cardinals don’t have to sign away another team’s top talent in order to beat them.
In that period the Cardinals acquired the likes of Mark McGwire, Edgar Renteria, Jim Edmonds, Darryl Kile, Scott Rolen, Woody Williams, Larry Walker, Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, David Freese, John Lackey, Jason Heyward and Marcell Ozuna — all through trade.
Now, the Cardinals have still been active in free agency, but it’s rare to see them go after the big pricy names on the market. One of the rare exceptions was in signing Dexter Fowler in the 2016-17 offseason. Otherwise in free agency, the Cardinals mostly stick to adding a few pieces here and there, often players whose previous team has overlooked them, signed somebody new to replace them or just felt it was time to part ways.
With that kind of a history, to hear the news that Matheny had been fired Saturday did actually surprise me. It probably shouldn’t have, but it did. After all, Matheny managed the Cardinals through four consecutive playoff runs, including three trips to the league championship series and one to the World Series. That’s a pretty good track record for a manager with just six full seasons under his belt.
Sure, the Cardinals have missed the playoffs the last two years and have been struggling to stay in the race this season as we go deeper into the summer and something needed to change fast to keep the team in the hunt. However, I find it hard to put that blame on a manager who only missed the playoffs twice in six seasons and one of those times was only by one game.
Matheny had a reputation for perhaps taking the game a bit too seriously, but it’s hard to point to that and say the team was too uptight because of it when you watch the games and see conga lines and water being dumped down players’ backs after a home run (courtesy of Carlos Martinez) and some of the other antics the team gets up to in the dugout.
Perhaps the most surprising part is that if Matheny had to go, why wasn’t third base coach Jose Oquendo given the opportunity to serve as manager in the interim? Oquendo was long thought to be the heir apparent to La Russa, though when Tony finally hung up his windbreaker it was Matheny who moved out of the front office to the bench.
Oquendo remains immensely popular in St. Louis and would seem to be the ideal candidate to finish out the season and audition for the job permanently.
Instead, the Cardinals have tapped Mike Shildt for the job. Despite not being the obvious choice to those of us outside the clubhouse, it’s hard to find fault with the choice. Shildt has been a successful manager at each stage of the Cardinals’ farm system before being added to the big club as a bench coach in 2017.
Shildt started off his audition for the permanent job with a win Sunday, but now that we’re into the All-Star break it’ll be a few more days before we can really start to witness the way Shildt is going to lead this team going forward.
Time will tell if we have the next long-term mainstay at the helm or if the rest of this season will just be a transition to the next authority figure.