When the folks in well-tailored suits came for Mike Matheny late Friday night, the Cardinals manager asked that they wait. He would walk to the interview room in due time, but this moment along a clubhouse back wall was too spontaneous, too meaningful to cut short.
In the raucous aftermath of his team’s Game 6 clinch of the National League championship series, Matheny stood among the circle when right fielder Carlos Beltran spoke about heading to his first World Series. The second-year manager literally soaked in a moment. His back to a plastic curtain, he spoke easily about what this bunch had accomplished, what it had overcome.
Saturday afternoon found Matheny driving to and from errands. His answers were more guarded, less effusive, perhaps because the questions were about his role in a season that is now just four wins shy of the franchise’s 12th World Series championship.
“It’s a slippery slope I really don’t want to start traveling,” Matheny replied. “It’s extremely gratifying to see what these players have accomplished and how they’ve handled themselves through some difficult times. They’ve earned every bit of this and they realize there’s another step to take. But I don’t think it’s the time for me as manager to talk about my place in this.”
The Cardinals have won 185 regular-season games the past two seasons. They’ve also won 14 playoff games, enough to leave them a game short of last year’s World Series and this time to reach their fourth Fall Classic within a decade.
If a manager may be judged on the outcome of his decisions, Matheny is on an October roll.
The Cardinals have thrived largely because of decisions they’ve made. Most recently Matheny and general manager John Mozeliak embraced rookie Michael Wacha as part of the postseason rotation although Wacha owned only nine major-league starts.
“Given what Michael showed us at the end of the season, that really wasn’t much of a reach,” Matheny said.
The move meant the somewhat controversial transfer of 15-game winner Shelby Miller to long relief. Wacha merely saved the season against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 4 of the Division Series before emerging as NLCS Most Valuable Player with two wins opposite the Los Angeles Dodgers’ presumptive Cy Young Award winner, Clayton Kershaw.
Matheny hung with Lance Lynn as Game 4 starter in the LCS after the righthander labored in a start against the Pirates. The pivot point against the Dodgers occurred when Lynn escaped the fourth inning with a 3-2 lead by inducing a one-out double play with the bases loaded. In the same game, Matheny received a pinch home run from Shane Robinson and perfectly timed a double switch that brought Pete Kozma into the game at shortstop. Kozma immediately made two strong plays that may have eluded starter Daniel Descalso.
The Cardinals haven’t lost a game after leading this postseason. Matheny’s late-season move to rookie Carlos Martinez as set-up for replacement closer Trevor Rosenthal has been seamless. Given a start in place of Jon Jay Friday, the righthanded Robinson factored with two hits and two RBIs.
“I give the credit to the guys who got it done,” Matheny said. “Your job as manager is to do what you think is right. But it’s ultimately the players who make it happen.”
Matheny reminds that for every move he makes, he may reject 10 others. The lesson is instructive following a series influenced by Dodger manager Don Mattingly’s hasty decision to replace his most potent hitter, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, in a 13-inning Game 1 loss. Mattingly also clung to shortstop Hanley Ramirez and center fielder Andre Ethier after both were exposed as physically compromised. The duo finished the series 5-for-35 with two runs and one RBI.
Hiring Matheny 23 months ago to succeed Tony La Russa was thought a gamble. The Cardinals interviewed and quickly rejected Terry Francona, who had won two World Series with the Boston Red Sox. Matheny admitted he faced a steep learning curve. Unsaid is that he faced a tough audience as well.
“I know people had their doubts. But I can comfortably say we didn’t,” said Mozeliak, who knew Matheny as a player before hiring him as a roving coach and special assistant following retirement. “Because of the relationship Mike and I had developed, I was very confident in what he brought, first as a leader. The other stuff would come. That was never a concern.”
While athletes are treated locally as demigods, managing in this town is not easy. La Russa was fond of saying about working here, “Players succeed; the manager fails.”
If TLR sensed it, how must someone without prior managerial experience feel?
The most pointed criticism Matheny received during the NLCS focused on his slow hand with starter Joe Kelly and Edward Mujica in Game 5. Less seemingly was made about the bats’ inability to exploit two ripe opportunities against Zack Greinke during the first three innings.
Slavish media and front office devotion to advanced metrics has created a widespread perception that managers are mostly dugout Gumps who only foul things by failing to go where the numbers point. The superstar manager is trending the way of the dinosaur. Bunting, something Matheny embraced this summer, often without success, can be grounds for excommunication.
“It’s an easy dodge when people want to play things backward and pick at decisions that were made,” Matheny said. “I get it. You come to expect it.”
The job, as Matheny sees it, “is more about people.” He may be more open to front-office suggestions than his predecessor but Matheny does not manage solely by spreadsheet. When he has left himself open to criticism, it typically has involved offering a struggling player significant benefit of the doubt. (See: Mitchell Boggs and Mujica.)
La Russa respected his players but trusted only a select few. His managerial crimes were typically considered ones involving heavy fingerprints. Matheny, less removed from his playing career, is less trigger-happy.
Said Matheny: “I got some of those questions when I went through the interview process. How did I view numbers? How important are they? And, believe me, I appreciate their value. I’m open to them and consider them a resource. But what this job comes down mostly to me is people. Numbers don’t tell you everything about how a player will react to a certain situation.”
If Matheny was managerial clay, two seasons have shaped a man who came with backbone.
Mozeliak acknowledged that Matheny has “evolved.” Matheny says he no longer concerns himself with his press, good or bad. Yet he knows enough to believe some of the criticism he’s received to be personal.
“If someone wants to send (criticism) my way, fine,” Matheny said. “I’m not here asking for credit. But if I can take heat off a player, I consider that part of my job. I have people come up to me and say, ‘I don’t know why so-and-so is saying this about you but I think you’re doing great.’ To be honest, I don’t care what they’re saying.”
Today they say the Cardinals will work out in preparation for the World Series. Matheny, who sometimes describes one of his best attributes as “staying out of the way,” will take all questions.