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BenFred: Marmol is a new-school manager with old-school candidness, and that blend should help him push Cardinals forward

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St. Louis Cardinals start day 1 of team workouts in Jupiter

St. Louis Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol on the first day of organized team workouts on Monday, March 14, 2022, at the Cardinals spring training facility in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

No one gasped or called for a fainting couch, but there was a palpable pause.

Had Oliver Marmol really just said that?

While discussing hard-throwing prospect Jake Walsh during spring training, the first-year Cardinals manager said he was eager to see how the right-hander responded in his next Grapefruit League relief appearance after getting knocked around the last time out. Except Marmol didn’t say Walsh got knocked around. Walsh, per the manager, “got his teeth kicked in.”

Whoa now.

We are not used to hearing recent Cardinals managers swing away so freely with the barrel of blunt honesty.

Let’s hope this lasts.

And let’s hope Marmol can be as candid with his baseball bosses about what his team needs to make sure spring training’s optimistic talk about a World Series run was more than just Jupiter propaganda.

Marmol insists this way, the short path that leads directly to the point, is the only one the 35-year-old knows.

The youngest manager in Major League Baseball, promoted from bench coach after the Cardinals fired Mike Shildt this offseason, plans to push the Cardinals into the future.

He believes a proud and historic franchise can be just as proud and just as historic by leaning harder toward baseball’s always sharpening cutting edge.

Those who have been dying to see the Cardinals stop straddling the fence and jump toward full-blown baseball modernization will cheer.

Those still grumbling about the designated hitter coming to the National League while fuming over other trend changes in the game will be challenged, as you have probably noticed this spring, when Marmol discussed preferring a bullpen without set roles, entertaining the idea of a nontraditional fifth starter, and changing his lineup often to maximize the best matchups available that game.

It’s not my place to tell you everything is going to be OK.

It’s Marmol’s job to prove it.

He gets that, and that’s a great start.

Marmol understands and embraces the importance of communication and connection in a role that now asks the field manager to be both an extension of the front office and a connector between all of the people and departments that are supposed to work together to maximize performance.

He chuckles at the notion of people losing their minds about not predetermining a closer, or letting Jordan Hicks start a game as a hybrid starter, or moving his designated hitter — a rule he was in favor of (gasp!) — up and down in the lineup as various players get reps in the role, but he doesn’t do so with a sneer. Instead he offers an open invitation to come along. And for those wondering, yes, he does write the lineup. By hand. In all-caps.

“I feel like other teams are well beyond what we are talking about,” Marmol said. “It’s not new as much as, we have not done a whole lot of it here. And I do feel like it’s important, in my job, to answer all of the questions in order to educate fans on why we are doing what we are doing. It’s going to work sometimes. It’s not going to work sometimes. Explaining the reason behind it, I think, is the important part.”

The best way to get old-school and new-school on the same page? Win. Shared success is the universal uniter.

“We’re only going to do it if it makes sense,” Marmol said. “We are not going to do it just to do something different. And if it makes sense, it’s easy to have the conversation. If we are having to sell it hard, it probably doesn’t make sense. If you are having to sell it to hard, it’s probably not the right play.”

One of the few spots where former Cardinals manager Mike Shildt clearly dropped the ball — others are up for debate — was when he fell into the habit of trying to explain away during public comments something he would never justify privately. It usually came from a good place, mostly from wanting to not come across as being critical of his players in the public eye, but at times it did more harm than good, and it did some real damage to Shildt’s credibility in some fans’ eyes. Why was he asking them to believe something they knew he could not believe? Or, worse, how could the manager believe that? Things reached their worst during the pandemic, when cold and distant Zoom interviews became the norm, and conversations that used to take place in the dugout or manager’s office were now live, for the world to see. Everything was a show, and Shildt’s attempts to put positive spin on obviously non-positive developments became easy fodder for his critics. From the view of Shildt’s bench coach, Marmol saw what did and did not work for his friend. He’s not the kind of guy who ignores a lesson that plays out in front of his eyes.

Marmol’s direct approach works, he says, because he’s the same guy with his players that he is with the front office, and with the media, and with you, if you happen to meet him out and about. Telling the truth, Marmol said multiple times this spring, is the best way to go. Even if it’s uncomfortable, it has to be respected. And if you do it enough, everyone just comes to expect it.

Walsh got rocked that day on the mound. Tommy Edman had a disappointing spring but the team is still confident he will come through. Jack Flaherty’s clash with the front office about how his shoulder setback was phrased was unfortunate, but it can either be settled or blown out of proportion. Nolan Gorman looked like he was pressing in his attempt to make the team. Certain players needed to sharpen their defense. Certain pitchers needed to throw more strikes. All were comments made by Marmol during spring training, and at last check, Earth remained on its axis.

The very best example was Marmol politely but firmly correcting a reporter — hey, it wasn’t me — who asked if the relationship between Marmol and Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols is similar to being their little brother.

“It’s not an older-brother, little-brother situation at all,” Marmol said. “I manage the team. And they are players.”

Great answer. Important answer. Especially when Marmol is about to become just the third manager in the past 30 years to manage an opening-day team that features three players older than the manager.

“If you were to ask the players, they would tell you the same thing,” Marmol said. “My biggest word is honesty. I’ll be honest with them. It’s not a knock on anybody.”

That’s why Marmol didn’t think twice about saying what he said about Walsh. He had already told the same thing to Walsh. The pitcher agreed, then pitched better the next time out.

“It comes natural,” Marmol said. “I don’t think about it. I hope it stays that way. Just because, it’s easier.”

See what I mean about liking this guy?

Even more so if his team kicks in some teeth.

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