Why the Cardinals fired Mike Matheny

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Mike Matheny’s late night firing by the St. Louis Cardinals came as a major surprise. Even those who watch the team closely were shocked by the move. Indeed, just 15 minutes before Matheny was fired, St. Louis writer and radio host Bernie Miklasz — an excellent source for what’s going on with the Cards — tweeted that, if the Cardinals did make a move to shake the team up, it’d be by dumping a coach and that Matheny would most likely be dealt with after the season ended. His subsequent shock that Matheny was, indeed, given his walking papers was mirrored by many who know the Cardinals well.

Yet, as soon as the move happened, most Cardinals observers’ reaction was, basically, “OK, that’s understandable.” The act and timing of Matheny being fired was rather startling, but the need for him to go seems, in the immediate aftermath, to make all the sense in the world. For a number of reasons.

The big picture reason is pretty straightforward: the Cardinals are playing some seriously bad baseball. At the moment they are 47-46, seven and a half games out of first place in the NL Central and four back — with several teams ahead of them — for the second Wild Card. As it stands, they are poised to miss the playoffs for the third year in a row, which has not happened to the Cardinals this century. The last time that happened was between 1997-99, early in Tony La Russa’s tenure. After that they were playing October baseball in 12 of the next 16 seasons, winning the World Series twice. Simply put, there are high expectations in St. Louis, and Matheny’s Cardinals were not meeting them.

That above-.500 record is masking far worse play of late. The club started off 20-12 and has gone 27-34 since. They’ve dropped two of three against the woeful Royals, two of three against the Marlins and three of four to the Twins. Eight of their early season wins came against the Reds when Cincinnati was playing the worst baseball of any club in the majors this year. Friday night and last night, however, they were basically humiliated by that Reds team at home in Busch Stadium, losing 9-1 and 8-2, respectively, while making a ton of mistakes, both mental and otherwise, and while playing profoundly uninspired baseball. The Cardinals blog Viva El Birdos’ recap of last night’s game said the club simply gave up, and called the performance the team’s “nadir” of 2018. That was written before Matheny was fired, by the way. Yes, the Cardinals have been losing, but more significant than the losing has been the ugly, lethargic and uninspired manner in which the Cardinals have lost and the fact that they have lost so many times to teams they should be beating.

So, fine, the team is losing. But players play the game, not managers, right? Can we not look at the team’s stat lines and find underachieving players for whom Matheny, like so many other fired managers, is taking the fall? Can we not say that if  Tommy Pham, Dexter Fowler, Marcel Ozuna and Kolten Wong were all hitting better that Matheny would be spending the All-Star break consulting with the front office regarding what the team needs at the trade deadline to make a playoff push as opposed to going fishing?

Not in this case. Yes, a lot of players are underachieving, but the front office is clearly blaming Matheny and his motivational tactics — or the lack thereof — for that. And for good reason.

Last week there was a story in The Athletic detailing the harsh manner in which veteran reliever Bud Norris was treating young reliever Jordan Hicks, “badgering” Hicks, and treating him “mercilessly.” Matheny gave several quotes in the article clearly showing that he approved, calling it “old school” and lamenting the alleged lack of toughness in today’s game and, by implication, in today’s players. Norris’ treatment of Hicks was couched as a veteran motivating a rookie, but as I noted in my post responding to that, if one read between the lines it came off as intimidation, not mentoring, and Matheny’s approval of it was appalling. I was not alone in that assessment and, indeed, at some point after it was published, the headline of The Athletic story was changed to refer to Norris and Matheny’s old school approach as “divisive.”

Bernie Miklaz tweeted overnight that the front office was less-than-pleased with how Matheny came off in that story, reflecting a larger disconnect between his approach on the one hand and what both management and players want on the other:

It was already widely reported that Matheny and outfielder Dexter Fowler have not been on speaking terms for some time, but it would not be at all shocking if, in the coming days, we learned that Matheny had lost far many more members of the clubhouse than just Fowler.

Such a dynamic, by the way, does not just cost managers of losing teams their jobs. Just ask Joe Girardi, who the Yankees declined to retain after last season despite coming within a game of the World Series. The sense was that, like Matheny, the younger players on the club were not responding to his old school style. Given how much more important younger players are in today’s game than they used to be, that’s simply not a tenable position for a manager to be in. It’s also, by the way, why the inevitable, immediate calls for Joe Girardi to get the Cardinals job seem rather silly.

Managing the St. Louis Cardinals has, historically, come with a high degree of job security. Only two men — Matheny and La Russa — have held the job over the past 23 seasons. That job security, however, is a function of winning, and Mike Matheny simply is not winning. While that could be overlooked for a time — just as the front office has, for years, overlooked Matheny’s more venial sins, such as his often poor bullpen management and his less-than-stellar tactical moves — it couldn’t be overlooked when the losing was ugly and when he was losing the clubhouse.

Those things, for any manager, are . . . Cardinal sins.

Bonds, Clemens left out of Hall again; McGriff elected

John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN DIEGO – Moments after Fred McGriff was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, almost two decades after his final game, he got the question.

Asked if Barry Bonds belonged in Cooperstown, a smiling McGriff responded: “Honestly, right now, I’m going to just enjoy this evening.”

A Hall of Fame committee delivered its answer Sunday, passing over Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling while handing McGriff the biggest honor of his impressive big league career.

The lanky first baseman, nicknamed the “Crime Dog,” hit .284 with 493 homers and 1,550 RBIs over 19 seasons with six major league teams. The five-time All-Star helped Atlanta win the 1995 World Series.

McGriff got 169 votes (39.8%) in his final year on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot in 2019. Now, he will be inducted into Cooperstown on July 23, along with anyone chosen in the writers’ vote, announced Jan. 24.

“It’s all good. It’s been well worth the wait,” said McGriff, who played his last big league game in 2004.

It was the first time that Bonds, Clemens and Schilling had faced a Hall committee since their 10th and final appearances on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot. Bonds and Clemens have been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, and support for Schilling dropped after he made hateful remarks toward Muslims, transgender people, reporters and others.

While the 59-year-old McGriff received unanimous support from the 16 members of the contemporary baseball era committee – comprised of Hall members, executives and writers – Schilling got seven votes, and Bonds and Clemens each received fewer than four.

The makeup of the committee likely will change over the years, but the vote was another indication that Bonds and Clemens might never make it to the Hall.

This year’s contemporary era panel included Greg Maddux, who played with McGriff on the Braves, along with Paul Beeston, who was an executive with Toronto when McGriff made his big league debut with the Blue Jays in 1986.

Another ex-Brave, Chipper Jones, was expected to be part of the committee, but he tested positive for COVID-19 and was replaced by Arizona Diamondbacks President Derrick Hall.

The contemporary era committee considers candidates whose careers were primarily from 1980 on. A player needs 75% to be elected.

“It’s tough deciding on who to vote for and who not to vote for and so forth,” McGriff said. “So it’s a great honor to be unanimously voted in.”

In addition to all his big hits and memorable plays, one of McGriff’s enduring legacies is his connection to a baseball skills video from youth coach Tom Emanski. The slugger appeared in a commercial for the product that aired regularly during the late 1990s and early 2000s – wearing a blue Baseball World shirt and hat.

McGriff said he has never seen the video.

“Come Cooperstown, I’ve got to wear my blue hat,” a grinning McGriff said. “My Tom Emanski hat in Cooperstown. See that video is going to make a revival now, it’s going to come back.”

Hall of Famers Jack Morris, Ryne Sandberg, Lee Smith, Frank Thomas and Alan Trammell also served on this year’s committee, which met in San Diego at baseball’s winter meetings.

Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Belle, Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy rounded out the eight-man ballot. Mattingly was next closest to election, with eight votes of 12 required. Murphy had six.

Bonds, Clemens and Schilling fell short in January in their final chances with the BBWAA. Bonds received 260 of 394 votes (66%), Clemens 257 (65.2%) and Schilling 231 (58.6%).

Palmeiro was dropped from the BBWAA ballot after receiving 25 votes (4.4%) in his fourth appearance in 2014, falling below the 5% minimum needed to stay on. His high was 72 votes (12.6%) in 2012.

Bonds has denied knowingly using performance-enhancing drugs, and Clemens maintains he never used PEDs. Palmeiro was suspended for 10 days in August 2005 following a positive test under the major league drug program.

A seven-time NL MVP, Bonds set the career home run record with 762 and the season record with 73 in 2001. A seven-time Cy Young Award winner, Clemens went 354-184 with a 3.12 ERA and 4,672 strikeouts, third behind Nolan Ryan (5,714) and Randy Johnson (4,875). Palmeiro had 3,020 hits and 568 homers.

Schilling fell 16 votes shy with 285 (71.1%) on the 2021 BBWAA ballot. The right-hander went 216-146 with a 3.46 ERA in 20 seasons, winning the World Series with Arizona in 2001 and Boston in 2004 and 2007.

Theo Epstein, who also served on the contemporary era committee, was the GM in Boston when the Red Sox acquired Schilling in a trade with the Diamondbacks in November 2003.

Players on Major League Baseball’s ineligible list cannot be considered, a rule that excludes Pete Rose.