To be experienced, or not to be experienced, that was one of the many questions facing the St. Louis Cardinals’ upper-management over the past couple of weeks as they whittled down their list of candidates looking to fill the huge managerial vacancy left by future Hall of Famer, Tony La Russa. Frankly, there would have been some unrest within the Cardinals’ fan base no matter who the team went with, but I find the “Mike Matheny is inexperienced” argument completely irrelevant. He’s inexperienced? At what? Sure he hasn’t managed a single professional baseball game in his life, but that’s not a prerequisite for “experience” in my book. First, let’s take a hard look at what a major league manager truly does and then see if Matheny is qualified or not.
Major League Managing 101 -
1) Leadership – This is hands down the most important quality a Major League manager must have. He’s leading a group of men for seven months through Spring Training and then a 162 game regular season. Guys can lose focus and get burnt out pretty easily under those conditions. The manager needs to be a guy who’s been through the same thing and knows how to keep that focus throughout the long summer months.
2) Knowledge of the Game – We’re not just talking about hitting the ball and running counterclockwise around the bases, here… we’re talkin’ what pitch to throw to the cleanup hitter when you’re behind in the count and the bases are loaded. We’re talkin’ knowing when to pull your pitcher… and who can come in and get the next series of critical outs. We’re talking tie game, bottom of the 9th, runners at 2nd and 3rd with one out… do you load the bases to set up an inning ending double play or bring the infield in and trust your pitcher to get the out?
3) Knowledge of the Team’s Talent – Does the manager know his guys’ strengths and weaknesses, and can he utilize them accordingly.
Ok, so those are some of the basics. Now ask yourself the question: Is Mike Matheny “experienced” in any of those areas? Well, let’s take a look:
1) Leadership – Matheny was a manager on the field during his major league career, which spanned over 13 seasons with 4 different teams, including 5 years with the Cardinals. During those years, he gained trust and respect from his pitching staff (including Chris Carpenter), his other teammates (including Albert Pujols), and his coaches (including Dave Duncan). And he certainly knows what it’s like to go through the 162-game grind, doing it himself for more than a decade.
2) Knowledge of the Game – Mike Matheny won four gold gloves as a catcher. Translation: in addition to calling every single pitch selection of the game, he was also focused and talented enough to make all the physical plays necessary to be considered the best in the game at his position. He had an understanding of what opposing hitters strengths and weaknesses were, and helped his pitchers get them out.
3) Knowledge of the Team’s Talent – We already mentioned Mike Matheny has played with Pujols and caught for Chris Carpenter. He has also had a role in coaching and developing talent in the Cardinals’ minor league system, so he’s familiar with guys like Fernando Salas, Eduardo Sanchez, Daniel Descalso, Tony Cruz, Allen Craig, Jon Jay, and others. In addition to that, he’s also served time as an analyst for Fox Sports Midwest, dissecting the players and games through a critical eye.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to managing a Major League Baseball team than what we’ve discussed thus far, but of the three areas we’ve hit on, Matheny does have the upper hand on all the other candidates with the exception of Jose Oquendo. I can only assume that “intangibles” put Matheny ahead of Jose in the club’s decision. How would the soft-spoken Oquendo handle the umpires? That’s something Matheny, as a catcher, was able to master over his 13 year career… lobbying his way over balls and strikes probably every single game he caught. How would Oquendo handle the media? That’s something Matheny had a big more experience at as well, playing in the media-crazed 21st century version of MLB and working himself as an on-air analyst.
All things considered, I think Mike Matheny is the right choice for the job as Cardinals manager. Is he “deserving” of the role, who’s really to say? He played minor league ball, worked his way up to the majors, and helped out with the minor league system over the past couple years. Clearly he hasn’t paid as many dues as Jose Oquendo has, but why should that matter? This is professional baseball… the best of the best work and play here. Ryan Franklin paid the most dues and had the most “experience” of any of the guys in the bullpen to start the 2011 season… and all of you, I repeat, ALL of you, were calling for him to be removed from the closer role by the 3rd week of the season. The Cardinals eventually obliged.
Sometimes, you have to go with your gut. General Manager John Mozeliak’s gut told him: respected by the players and coaches, knows the game, knows the players, knows how to work with the pitchers, knows how to prepare for and call a game. The gut feeling might work out for Mozeliak and the Cardinals, it might not… but out of the finalists for this particular job, the Cardinals chose the right guy.