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.

La Russa steps down as White Sox manager over heart issue

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CHICAGO — Tony La Russa stepped down as manager of the Chicago White Sox on Monday because of a heart issue, ending a disappointing two-year run in the same spot where the Hall of Famer got his first job as a big league skipper.

La Russa, a three-time World Series champion who turns 78 on Tuesday, missed the final 34 games with the underachieving White Sox. He left the team on Aug. 30 and doctors ultimately told him to stay out of the dugout.

La Russa has a pacemaker implanted in February and doctors later found another heart problem that he has not detailed.

“It has become obvious that the length of the treatment and recovery process for this second health issue makes it impossible for me to be the White Sox manager in 2023,” he said in a statement. “The timing of this announcement now enables the front office to include filling the manager position with their other offseason priorities.”

Chicago began the season with World Series aspirations but was plagued by injuries and inconsistent play. It was 79-80 heading into Monday night’s game against Minnesota.

“Our team’s record this season is the final reality. It is an unacceptable disappointment. There were some pluses, but too many minuses,” La Russa said. “I was hired to provide positive, difference-making leadership and support. Our record is proof. I did not do my job.”

Bench coach Miguel Cairo took over after La Russa stepped away. The White Sox showed a spark right after the change, winning 10 of 14. But they dropped eight straight in late September, dashing their playoff hopes.

La Russa, who is close friends with White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, was a surprise hire in October 2020, and he directed the team to the AL Central title last year.

But the White Sox sputtered throughout much of 2022, and there were chants of “Fire Tony! Fire Tony!” at Guaranteed Rate Field.

“At no time have I been disappointed or upset with White Sox fans, including those who at times chanted `Fire Tony,”‘ La Russa said. “They come to games with passion for our team and a strong desire to win. Loud and excited when we win, they rightly are upset when we play poorly.”

All-Star shortstop Tim Anderson and sluggers Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert missed significant time because of injuries. Catcher Yasmani Grandal and third baseman Yoan Moncada also had health issues, and they underperformed when they were on the field.

There were embarrassing breakdowns, too, like when the White Sox ran themselves into the first 8-5 triple play in major league history during a loss to Minnesota on July 4.

La Russa continued to be a lightning rod for fans who weren’t thrilled with his hiring in the first place. His lineups came under question as did his decisions in games.

Some fans chanted for La Russa’s dismissal following a strange call for an intentional walk to to the Dodgers’ Trea Turner despite a 1-2 count on June 9. Bennett Sousa had just bounced an 0-2 slider, allowing the runner to advance from first to second.

With the base open, La Russa chose to walk Turner even though there were two strikes. It backfired when Max Muncy smacked a three-run homer, propelling Los Angeles to an 11-9 victory.

Another moment that raised eyebrows happened early in the 2021 season.

During a 1-0 loss to Cincinnati, La Russa was unaware of a rule that would have allowed him to use Jose Abreu as the automatic runner at second base rather than closer Liam Hendriks in the 10th inning.

With a 2,900-2,514 record over 35 years with Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis, La Russa trails only Connie Mack on baseball’s career wins list. He moved past John McGraw last season.

But there were big questions about whether La Russa was the right person for the job when the White Sox hired him to replace Rick Renteria. He hadn’t filled out a lineup card since 2011, when St. Louis beat Texas in the World Series. There were doubts about how someone known more for his scowl than smile would mesh with a fun-loving team that had just delivered the White Sox’s first playoff appearance since 2008.

Then, shortly after his hiring, news surfaced of an arrest on misdemeanor DUI charges.

La Russa blew out a tire on the Lexus he was driving in a collision with a curb that February in Arizona, after going to dinner with friends. The case was filed on Oct. 28, one day before the White Sox announced La Russa’s hiring.

He ended up pleading guilty to a lesser charge of reckless driving and was sentenced to one day of home detention, a fine of nearly $1,400 and 20 hours of community service.

La Russa also pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in Florida in 2007 after police found him asleep and smelling of alcohol inside his running sport-utility vehicle at a stoplight.

La Russa captured championships with Oakland in 1989 and the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011. The former big league infielder and Sparky Anderson are the only managers to win the World Series in the American and National leagues.

He got his first major league managing job at age 34 when the White Sox promoted him from Triple-A to replace the fired Don Kessinger during the 1979 season. He took over that August and led them to a 522-510 record over parts of eight seasons.

The 1983 team won 99 games on the way to the AL West championship – Chicago’s first playoff appearance since the 1959 Go-Go White Sox won the pennant. But La Russa was fired in 1986 by then-general manager Ken Harrelson after the White Sox got off to a 26-38 start, a move Reinsdorf long regretted.