Rob Rains Inside Baseball: The Manager

When you don’t do something for 16 years, it’s logical that you might be a little rusty at it. And when you have never done something before, it’s even more understandable.

All of which means we should not be surprised at what has happened so far in the Cardinals’ search for a manager to succeed Tony La Russa. It’s the first time the Cardinals have gone through picking a new manager since 1995 and the first time ever that team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and GM John Mozeliak have gone through a managerial search.

Maybe that is why this search seems so different than what is going on in Boston and Chicago, a fact which might be a little disconcerting for all Cardinal fans.

Does anybody else wonder, for example, why the Cubs and Red Sox seem to be working from the exact same pool of managerial candidates, and that none of those possible managers is even on the list of people DeWitt and Mozeliak plan to interview?

Or, to cite another example, if Jose Oquendo is such a top candidate to become the next Cardinals’ manager, why is he not included in the folks interviewing for the jobs in Boston and Chicago?

One more question which is a little troubling – if Terry Francona is indeed the Cardinals’ top candidate, and if he has said he is interested in the job, why go through the charade of other interviews, and why wait more than a week to bring him to town for an interview?

That delay suggests that Francona either has doubts about taking the job if it is offered to him, or that the Cardinals have doubts that Francona is the right fit for the St. Louis job, but feel an obligation to interview him anyway.

From Francona’s standpoint, there would be a great deal of pressure in succeeding La Russa, and he is leaving a highly pressurized job in Boston. Maybe he wants to take a year off before getting back into a major-league dugout. That certainly would be understandable.

Another reason for the delay might be because Francona wants to see if he can get a read on what is happening with the Cubs’ position before he has to make a decision to take or reject the Cardinals’ job, if it is offered to him.

An interesting case could be made that Francona would be a better fit for the Cubs’ job than for the Cardinals, unless his relationship with Theo Epstein was so fractured by how everything ended in Boston that it cannot be repaired.

Reportedly, however, Epstein and Francona have been in communication about the Cubs situation and Francona’s biggest problems at the end in Boston were with the Red Sox’ owners, not Epstein.

If that is true, wouldn’t Francona be more comfortable continuing to work for Epstein and Jed Hoyer, two men he has worked with successfully in the past, instead of having to work with people he likely has never even met or talked with before this interview process? And, which job would present a bigger challenge, while also providing less pressure, Chicago or St. Louis?

Especially if the Cardinals re-sign Albert Pujols, the expectation is that this team will be a contender, if not the favorite, to repeat in 2012. The Cubs have no such expectations. And if Francona can go to Chicago and win the team’s first pennant since 1945 and first World Series since 1908, after breaking the curse in Boston, plans for his canonization as a saint should begin immediately.

One person who offered an interesting opinion on the difference between managing the Cubs and the Cardinals came this week from La Russa, during a radio interview with ESPN 1000 in Chicago.

“I think the neatest thing about the Chicago Cubs’ situation is it’s got the best dream going: to bring a world championship to that town,” La Russa said in the interview. “I think that turns on a lot of baseball people at whatever level because it’s a challenge that you look forward to. Imagine being a part of that situation. I think in that regard it’s tough to top that for the other 29 clubs. I think the biggest dream going right now is the Cubs.”

Another difference between the way the Cardinals and Cubs are conducting their job search is that the Cubs have made their interviews known to the public, and have had each of their candidates meet with the media after the interview, considering it a part of the process to see how that person interacts with the media. The Cardinals have not done that, forcing the media to rely on “sources” to let them know who has been and will be interviewed.

In addition to Francona, five other candidates reportedly have or will be interviewed for the Cardinals’ job. They have interviewed former Cardinal catcher Mike Matheny, Triple A manager Chris Maloney and former Cardinal Joe McEwing, hired last week to be the third-base coach of the Chicago White Sox after several years managing in their farm system.

The other two scheduled to interview this week, besides Francona, are Oquendo and former Cub Ryne Sandberg. Of the five other than Francona, the only one interviewed by another club looking for a manager this year was McEwing, by the White Sox.

Two people expected to be on the Cardinals’ list, but who so far have not been contacted, are former Washington manager Jim Riggleman and Atlanta coach and former Cardinal Terry Pendleton. In addition, former Cardinal and longtime minor league manager Tom Lawless is scheduled to meet with Mozeliak later this week.

One of the hardest parts of monitoring the Cardinals’ search is the uncertainty of what they are looking for in a new manager — since DeWitt and Mozeliak have never picked one before. After Matheny’s interview, he said much of the three hours he spent with DeWitt and Mozeliak centered on a discussion about leadership, and what the managerial candidate felt was the necessity and the characteristics of being a leader, and the importance of being the leader in the clubhouse.

Matheny almost certainly scored major points in the leadership category, but how much that will weigh against his lack of managing or coaching experience is uncertain. The Cardinals do not seem to have made that a major component of their job qualifications, at least at the major-league level, or they would be interviewing a different group of candidates.

La Russa, in his radio interview in Chicago, actually gave Sandberg’s candidacy more of a boost than others have done.

“I’ve heard he’s done a really good job in the minor leagues,” La Russa said about Sandberg, who ran the Phillies’ Triple A club this season. “I also pay him huge credit points and respect points. How many Hall of Famers do you know who are ready to go to the minor leagues and manage and prove what they can do?

“It’s not just the baseball side when you think about minor league travel and when you get to Triple-A, those 4 o’clock wakeups where you’ve got to make three stops to get to your town and get your club ready to play. It is paying some severe dues and the fact that he paid them I think says something very special about him.”

What nobody is saying about the Cardinals’ search is that DeWitt and Mozeliak are no doubt looking for a manager who fits into their organizational philosophy, meaning someone who will take input and suggestions from a variety of sources, including statistical analysis. A first-time manager probably will be much more likely to fall into that category than someone with multiple years of major-league experience, such as Francona.

Financial considerations also no doubt will play a role in the decision. Hiring Francona will certainly cost more than hiring Matheny or Oquendo, for example. If having continuity with the coaching staff is important, that also would suggest that Matheny or Oquendo could be the choice, knowing they would keep the bulk of the coaching staff intact, while Francona would likely want to bring in several of his own coaches.

The other major uncertainty in making this decision, of course, is timing. Almost everyone who has spent time around Matheny knows that he has all of the qualities to become a great major-league manager someday, except for the experience of actually coaching or managing. But if he goes out and gets that experience for a couple of years, will the Cardinals’ job be open again at that time? Or will he get the experience in the St. Louis system, then get plucked off to manage another major-league team? If the Cardinals think Matheny is the best choice now, they need to hire him now and not run the risk of him going to another team.

It is interesting to note that of the 10 managers who began their first full season in the major leagues in 2011, six of them were first-time managers. Kirk Gibson and Ron Roenicke each led their teams to division titles.

Ultimately, what the Cardinals have to decide is what qualities they view as the most important in their selection of a new manager – leadership, experience and/or the willingness to work with the front office. Make the wrong choice, and the team will suffer the consequences. Make the right choice, and it could be a home run. Or the pick could fall somewhere in between and be neither a great success or an abominable failure but just an OK choice.

Mozeliak has said he would like to have his decision made before the GM meetings begin Nov. 14 in Milwaukee, or certainly before Thanksgiving, so we won’t have to wait much longer.

Read more of Rob’s thoughts on The Stl Sports Page.

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