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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.

Mike Piazza presided over the destruction of a 100-year-old soccer team

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Mike Piazza was elected to the Hall of Fame in January of 2016 and inducted in July of 2016. In between those dates he purchased an Italian soccer team, A.C. Reggiana 1919, a member of Italy’s third division. In June of that year he was greeted as a savior in Reggio Emilia, the small Italian town in which the team played. He was the big American sports star who was going to restore the venerable club to its past and rightful place of glory.

There were suggestions by last March that things weren’t going well, but know we know that in less than two years it all fell apart. Piazza and his wife Alicia presided over a hot mess of a business, losing millions of dollars and, this past June, they abruptly liquidated the club. It is now defunct — one year short of its centennial — and a semipro team is playing in its place, trying to acquire the naming rights from Piazza as it wends its way though bankruptcy.

Today at The Athletic, Robert Andrew Powell has a fascinating — no, make that outrageously entertaining — story of how that all went down from the perspective of the Piazzas. Mostly Alicia Piazza who ran the team in its second year when Mike realized he was in over his head. She is . . . something. Her quotes alone are worth the price of admission. For example:

Alicia, who refers to Mike’s ownership dream as “his midlife crisis,” offered up a counter argument.

“Who the f**k ever heard of Reggio Emilia?” she asked. “It’s not Venice. It’s not Rome. My girlfriend said, and you can quote this—and this really depressed me. She said, ‘Honey, you bought into Pittsburgh.’ Like, it wasn’t the New York Yankees. It wasn’t the Mets. It wasn’t the Dodgers. You bought Pittsburgh!”

In their Miami living room, Mike tried to interject but she stopped him.

“And imagine what that feels like, after spending 10 million euros. You bought Pittsburgh!”

At this point it may be worth remembering that Piazza is from Pennsylvania. Eastern Pennsylvania to be sure, but still.

Shockingly, it didn’t end all that well for the Piazzas in Reggio Emilia:

One week later, the Piazzas returned to Reggio Emilia, and were spotted at the team offices. More than a hundred ultras marched into the office parking lot, chanting and demanding answers. Carabinieri—national police aligned with the military—showed up for the Piazzas’ safety. The police advised the Americans to avoid the front door of the complex and exit through the back. Mike assured them it wouldn’t be necessary—he had always enjoyed a good relationship with the fans.

The carabinieri informed him that the relationship had changed. The Piazzas slipped out the back door, under police escort.

The must-read of the week. Maybe the month. Hell, maybe the year. The only thing I can imagine topping it is if someone can tell this story from the perspective of the people in Reggio Emilia. I’m guessing their take is a bit different than the Piazzas.