Mellow Mike And The Lack Of Fire
When we were the first Cardinal outlet to accurately predict and lobby for the hiring of Mike Matheny as a replacement for Tony La Russa last August, our reasoning seemed sound. Matheny, a former player, had already gained the respect of most in the clubhouse. He was particularly respected by key emotional members of the team, including Yadier Molina and Chris Carpenter. Although he lacked experience, his tenure as catcher seemed to give him a better-than-average understanding of in-game tactics and the use of a bullpen.
While even the most ardent Cardinal fans will agree that Matheny has had some shaky, head-scratching moments in his first year, overall he has done a solid job keeping this team afloat despite many injuries. Still, he has a very talented and experienced team that is definitely underachieving.
Observers have noted a distinct lack of passion from this team this year. While the Cardinals do have some fiery personalities among them – Molina, Carpenter (who is a non-issue this season), or Jason Motte – many of the veteran leaders playing this year are of an even-keeled nature. Matt Holliday barely registers more than a split-second of emotion before re-engaging his unsmiling, granite facade. Carlos Beltran is a wonderful guy, but is much more internal about his aggressiveness while playing the game itself very methodically. Lance Berkman keeps the atmosphere light, but has had little effect on this team due to his long absences this year. Other, younger leaders are good about having fun – Adam Wainwright, Jon Jay, Daniel Descalso, Allen Craig – but seemingly unsure how to inspire when the times are difficult.
The one constant is the manager. A team gains its pulse, its mindset, from its manager. The players look to their manager to put them all in a position to win, to fight for them when the moment arises, and to help develop its personality.
There is no doubt that the Cardinal teams of 1996-2011 carried much of the personality of Tony La Russa. They were all driven to win by a manager who simply hated losing with every fiber of his being. Like La Russa, those teams held grudges, were frequently uptight, and expected nothing less than winning everything. Each player was always keenly aware of La Russa glaring at them from behind his sunglasses, his unblinking eyes judging them constantly. They responded by playing to their highest ability, or getting the hell out of La Russa’s way. He destroyed many players, but he also elevated the games of many as well.
What is this 2012 team getting from Matheny?
He is certainly someone who commands respect. He’s a tall, good-looking, athletic guy who, unlike La Russa, played the game at a high level. For any player, these are compelling, appealing facets of his makeup that help connect him to his team.
But Matheny packages all of these terrific qualifications within a calm, cool, personable demeanor. Matheny rarely gets riled up (he’s been tossed twice this season), always standing on the top step with that same blank, glassy-eyed expression. His post-game interviews actually out-mumble La Russa, and rarely rise above the energy of an unlit candle.
Even worse, I never get the feeling that the players fear for their jobs under Matheny. When La Russa was the manager, even star players might be benched without warning (see: Scott Rolen) as he hacked and massaged his team toward October. The players on the 2012 Cardinals seem to consider Matheny their buddy, not their boss.
But even among friends, there are moments when they must aggressively stand up for each other. Imagine being at a bar with some friends when some asshole tries to pick a fight with you. Would you prefer that your friends ignore the guy, or would you prefer that your friends stand up to him? Which would garner more respect in your eyes?
Again and again, Matheny disappears emotionally when the going gets tough. Think back to that brutal hit exacted on Yadier Molina last Tuesday in Pittsburgh. Matheny went out and helped carry Molina’s carcass from the field (awww … touchy-feely) without a word. A few innings later, Jake Westbrook gently plunked Josh Harrison with a 90 mph pitch as “retaliation” (we’ll say this was ordered by Matheny). As Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was screaming out on the field, Matheny stood in the dugout like a cigar store Indian! Chris Carpenter was doing all of the screaming from the dugout while his manager stood by silently!
Imagine Tony La Russa in that same situation. Team surgeon George Paletta would’ve been forced to perform emergency surgery to remove La Russa’s foot from Hurdle’s ass. They would’ve found Hurdle in his car after the game with his throat slit and a big wad of chewing gum oozing from the neck hole.
Matheny’s lack of fire spills down into roster management, too. When La Russa didn’t think a player was right for the job, he would make that player sit until he withered and died (the list is too endless to recount). Matheny, on the other hand, “trusts his players” and “hopes for the best” while playing the same failing configurations in an attempt to be all things to all people. The latest example of this came yesterday, when Matheny used Lance Lynn – who has struggled lately more than any other pitcher on the staff – in a situation for which he was absolutely not the correct choice. Hopes and dreams are not going to make Lynn’s slowing fastball harder to hit, Mike.
Of course, there is a distinct and growing feeling that Matheny is merely a puppet for the real manager, general manager John Mozeliak. If this is sensed outside the organization, then you can be certain that the players sense it as well. If true, all that will do in the long run is undermine Matheny’s ability to fire up the troops and guide them emotionally as a leader.
There seems to be some proof that this is happening within the clubhouse. An excellent story from Joe Strauss detailed how several players were grumbling that the bullpen was still short on arms two days after the September call-up date. One unnamed player said that “‘someone should be screaming’ for more arms.”
Who is that directed at? Surely not Mozeliak, although he would make the ultimate decision about any call-ups. That “someone” mentioned in that quote is obviously Matheny. Unlike La Russa, who definitely would “scream” for additional help (even in the press), Matheny does not show such emotion or concern. In fact, Matheny’s response to the bullpen problem was that “we just have to fight through it.” HUH???
This weary, battered team needs a manager who will step up for them when they are being beaten down, someone tough for tough times. They don’t need hugs, prayers, or empty stares into space during a pennant race. If Matheny actually has any fire in his belly, now is the time to show it. This team is flat, listless, and rudderless, and its Matheny’s job – perhaps his only real job – to provide this dying corpse with a pulse.