One of the biggest applause lines Cardinals manager Mike Matheny delivered during his forum with the fans Monday at the Winter Warm-Up wasn’t an answer at all but a question he posed.
When asked about the National League Central and specifically about the young talent being nurtured and collected by the Chicago Cubs, Matheny interrupted.
“Who’s that?” he said.
Clapping and laughter were all the response he needed.
Throughout the Cardinals’ three-day fanfest this past weekend at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch, the Cubs kept coming up, whether it was the players the Cardinals lost to them this winter, the series the Cardinals lost to them this past October, or the superiority the Cardinals could lose to them in the inevitable preseason predictions.
Often they weren’t even mentioned by name, just called “the team up north.” That’s fitting. After all, every question about the rivals ultimately has to do with direction and which team stays up.
Since Houston fled the NL Central before 2013, the southernmost team has always been northernmost in the standings. The Cardinals have won three consecutive division titles, and Matheny has yet to enter a season as manager when his club wasn’t a favorite to win the Central. The Cubs, fortified by the additions of former Cardinals Jason Heyward and John Lackey, have positioned themselves this season to assert geographic order on the standings. That leaves the Cardinals in a role they haven’t had in a while: underdog.
“I would imagine we could get up there and talk about it in front of our guys and use it as some kind of motivational speech, but that’s kind of a waste of time,” Matheny said. “I think the message is usually making sure the guys don’t buy into it. When you start getting a lot of people telling you what you can’t do … if you begin to cave into (it) and believe that stuff, I think at that point it is somebody’s responsibility to stand up and point out the obvious. The obvious to us, whether it’s last year or going into this year, is we believe in what we have.
“If you sense that we need what’s going on out there to drive us and push us, so be it,” Matheny continued. “Right now I see a lot of guys shrugging their shoulders and saying, ‘This is who we are and we can’t wait to get out there and show it.’”
In four seasons as manager, Matheny has a 375-273 record, the best in the NL over those years. He is the first manager to pilot the Cardinals to four consecutive playoff appearances in club history, and he has done so after taking the job with no managerial experience at any level. Matheny acknowledges that he has learned on the job how to better run a game, but he was hired by the Cardinals for his ability to reach a clubhouse.
In 2015, Matheny galvanized a team that had lost its ace, its No. 3 hitter, its planned cleanup hitter, and its setup man to injuries. He built confidence internally, while externally describing how the Cardinals overcame perception. At one point, late in the year, the Cardinals had the best record in baseball and a healthy lead on No. 2, and Matheny insisted that few outside the clubhouse believed they were any good. Sometimes doubt can drive.
If steered carefully.
“I think the general rule is really important – your message to your team is that you have to ignore the compliments and the criticism,” said Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, who would use an us-against-the-world approach at times. “Somebody compliments and looks at what you’ve got and then all of sudden you lose an edge and you walk around like, ‘Hey, it’s over.’ And that’s bad. Then if you pay attention to the criticism then you may get a little chip on your shoulder for a little while but pretty soon, deep down, you believe any of it (and) you lose an edge. Quite often you can surprise the experts because they’re just guessing.”
Throughout the three days of the 20th annual Winter Warm-Up, which shared a weekend with the Cubs’ fanfest up north, so many of these phrases came up with the Cardinals.
A teammate said Adam Wainwright is returning to full strength “with a chip” on his shoulder after missing most of last year. Wainwright agreed with the diagnosis.
General manager John Mozeliak said the club does not get distracted by another team’s headlines but assured fans several times he sees what’s happening with “the team up north.” Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said, “It never hurts to be underdog. We’ve been underdogs and won world championships.” The Cardinals’ biggest offseason acquisition, $80 million righthander Mike Leake, spent the first 5½ years of his career with Cincinnati and described the Cardinals as annually the “main threat of the division.” The Cubs and Cardinals now “are the main fighters.”
Brandon Moss, who played a time in Pittsburgh, had to take a moment to even process the idea of the Cardinals not being the favorite.
“I love when people go ahead and give the division to someone before the season even starts,” Moss said. “Has this organization, this team, ever been an underdog? I doubt it. This year, they are. People want to go and give it to the Cubs, and by all means, they’re a great team. We’re a pretty dang good team, too.”
That will be a message delivered often this spring.
While many of the Cardinals signed their way through the weekend and wound their way through the backways of the Hyatt Regency, there was little time to interact. That comes in Florida. Pitchers and catchers officially report Feb. 17, though a handful are already there. The first official full-squad workout is Feb. 23, and that morning Matheny, his staff, and other officials will gather the team for the annual address. Even this weekend, several players spoke about how Matheny’s talk “helps us focus.”
Someone will inevitably mention the team should expect to win the World Series. The Cubs will be mentioned. But not because of where the Cardinals expect to see them, it’s because of where the Cardinals last saw them. The loss at Wrigley Field in the division series this past postseason still lingers, Matheny said. That’s fuel for a message.
After all, it’s the same in the clubhouse as it was on stage with the fans applauding. It’s not always the questions he asks or the answers he gives.
It’s the response he gets.
“There are some teams out there who have never been in a certain position before and you don’t know how they’re going to handle it,” Matheny said. “Our club has been in at least similar water. … I’m going to tell you something that they have and it kind of goes back through a lot of things we’ve talked about. I’m sensing an edge to this club already. I don’t know if you guys are getting that in here or if that is coming through in their interviews, but there is an edge to this club. You take talent and mix that kind of fire and heads up.”