Howard Bryant: Mark McGwire is "too toxic" to return

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Howard Bryant.jpgToday’s let’s-run-Mark McGwire-out-of-town-on-a-rail tirade comes courtesy of ESPN’s Howard Bryant, who cites the overwhelming outcry from people “around the game” against Mac’s hiring as hitting coach as a reason for him to be fired or shot or tied backwards on a horse while wearing a mardi gras mask and cast out into the desert or whatever.

For the record, here are the outcriers Bryant cites:

  • Whitey Herzog: A man I love, but a man who hasn’t managed in 20 years and hasn’t had a real job in the game for 14 years;
  • Adolphus Busch IV: A man whose father once owned the Cardinals and who, as far as I can tell, no longer has any connection to baseball, if indeed he ever did;
  • Carlton Fisk, Ferguson Jenkins and Ernie Banks: Three Hall of Famers who, while awesome, are all essentially team ambassadors.
  • Jack Clark and Steve Trachsel: guys who aren’t even notable enough to be genuine team ambassadors.
  • I’ll let Bryant explain the last one: “There is a fourth Hall of Fame player, one who shall remain nameless
    because we spoke in confidence, who told me last week that he planned
    on contacting Selig to tell the commissioner he had made a terrible
    mistake with his enthusiastic endorsement of McGwire’s return to the
    game as the Cardinals hitting coach.”

So there you are. Six retired guys, one random son of privilege and an anonymous Hall of Famer who feels so strongly about McGwire that he won’t even let his name be used.  That’s what Bryant calls a toxic insider “backlash.” That’s what Bryant says justifies people calling for McGwire’s head.

Here’s a nice way to test and see if McGwire’s hiring is as big a mistake as guys like Bryant says it is: ignore it. Say nothing about it and see if, say, Cardinals season ticket sales fall off or if protests form at every stadium to which the team travels or if corporate sponsors flee the team due to McGwire’s presence.  I have this feeling nothing will happen, but if it does, well, at least we have something more than Adolphus Busch IV’s rather irrelevant view of things to work from.

I suppose Bryant may respond that this is a moral issue, not one that can be decided by the whims of public and corporate opinion as I propose. But if that’s the case, then why in the hell does trotting out guys like Busch, Herzog, and Fisk help his case?  If McGwire’s presence on the Cardinals is an abomination, say it, Bryant. Come out and demand that he be fired. Don’t hide behind people who are allegedly “around the game.”

Let’s make it a challenge. Ken Rosenthal. Peter Gammons. Bryant. Anyone else who is inclined to bogusly cite McGwire’s lack of candor, the alleged “distraction” he causes, or the pseudo-backlash:  Quit hiding behind your manifestly artificial controversies and rhetorical constructs and just come out and say you want the Cardinals to fire him because you think he doesn’t deserve the job.  Demand it.  Ask for his head because he doesn’t satisfy you.

If you do, I’ll disagree with your call. But at least I’ll respect it as something honest. Because what we’ve seen from you these past three days has been anything but.

Joe Maddon is on the hottest of hot seats

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Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic have written a fantastically revealing article about the 2019 Chicago Cubs.

The story, on the surface anyway, might be confused for one of those pre-Opening Day team philosophy pieces in which a bunch of players and executives talk about how they need to “go about their business” a better way, focus on the little things and all of that common, cliche-driven material. And yes, there is a fair amount of that in there.

But the larger arc of it is more revealing than that. The whole thing reads like a warning shot from the front office toward the players and coaching staff, with Joe Maddon standing out as a particular subject of rebuke. Indeed, it’s hard to read the thing without believing that, absent a super fast start and a return to championship form, Maddon is gonna be fired this year.

The article has been shared on social media a lot since going live yesterday, and most of that sharing has focused on little things like the Cubs wanting players to eat less fast food this year and batting practice being mandatory a certain number of days a week. But it’s bigger than that. The article doesn’t contain any incendiary quotes or veiled threats, but it seems pretty clear that Maddon is taking blame for the team not being focused in the past.

Part of that comes from the structure of it. The idea here is that the 2018 season ended badly and that, in the offseason, the front office made a point to talk to the players. Theo Epstein talking to Jason Heyward in the batting cage after everyone else has gone home for the offseason. Epstein, Jed Hoyer and other front office officials visiting Jon Lester at his home in Georgia. Epstein and Hoyer going to Anthony Rizzo‘s wedding in Florida. There’s a lot of talk from all of them about hatching the new forward-looking philosophy but everything from Maddon comes from past quotes or quotes given in reaction to the new philosophy. It seems clear that the front office and the players are on the same page and that Maddon is kinda going along for the ride with it, even if he’s saying all the right things.

As far as the substance of the new 2019 philosophy goes, there is a lot of stuff couched in terms of “here’s a good thing we’re going to start doing this year” that come off like criticisms of Maddon for not doing them in the past.

For example, there is talk about how Maddon plans to talk to players and coach more which are hard to read, in context, as anything other than criticism of him being removed or aloof before. They plan to give players lineups several days in advance, characterized as a means of helping them plan, but there is reference to the sense that they were pressing to impress Maddon and not be written out of the lineup in the past. There’s stuff about how the players are “coddled” with clubhouse amenities and how Maddon’s office was too far away from them and how he talked to the press too much and to the players too little. Again, not explicitly stated as a current criticism but, rather, couched in terms of a “here are good things we’re going to do now.” It’s clear, though, that the unspoken idea is “. . . and we should’ve done it differently before.”

When put together with other things in the article — things like (a) Maddon not getting a contract extension and thus being a lame duck; (b) top executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer making a point to travel with the team more on road trips and show up more in the clubhouse at Wrigley; and (c) a Theo Epstein/Jon Lester-driven narrative that makes references to both the Chicken and Beer and Bobby Valentine-era Red Sox — it all puts one in mind of the late Terry Francona-era Boston Red Sox. To be sure, it’s reported and stated much more more artfully than that. This is not an anonymously-source hit piece driven by a Sox chairman or VP with an axe to grind or anything. It’s a good article. But it makes one think that a message is being sent to and/or about Joe Maddon, even if it’s being sent more subtly than the kind of message you might’ve seen sent in, say, the Boston Globe back in the day.

No matter what you think of it all, it strikes me that Maddon is on the hottest of seats right now and that, if and when he’s fired, this article will stand in hindsight as a pretty obvious harbinger of it.