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BenFred: Shildt reopens Cardinals wounds one week from opening day

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Cardinals take on Marlins in second spring training game

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt (8) and bench coach Oliver Marmol (37) walk off the field following a preseason MLB baseball game at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. The teams agreed to play a shortened seven inning game. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

JUPITER, Fla. — Just when the Cardinals probably felt free and clear from the Mike Shildt situation after MLB lockout theater and the Albert Pujols reunion, the Cardinals’ ex-manager said not so fast to his front-office friends turned foes.

Shildt, with an assist from Hall of Famer Tony La Russa, refreshed a bitter baseball breakup story Thursday with comments made to USA Today.

Shildt, opening up a vein during Padres spring training in Arizona, has a long list of new baseball duties. But he is still first and foremost a broken-hearted former Cardinals manager, still analyzing his surprise October ejection before the promotion of bench coach Oliver Marmol to his old job.

Shildt told USA Today he expected to wear the Cardinals uniform his whole life. He said his firing after a third consecutive postseason stunned him. He said he and Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak had their differences but not ones that merited a dismissal.

“I was so loyal to that organization and cared so much," Shildt told USA Today. “I felt an immense weight of being a caretaker of that organization. Ultimately, I put too much pressure on myself. That was my issue, not anybody else’s. I didn’t want to let Mo down. I didn’t want to let my team down. I didn’t want to let our fanbase down. I didn’t want to let the tradition of players that came before us down. I was very passionate of that and dedicated to it, and at some level, I probably cared too much."

Former Cardinals manager La Russa was more pointed, which should surprise no one. The current White Sox manager described his hind end as “frosted” by the chatter he claimed to hear from the Cardinals side about Shildt creating a “toxic” work environment.

“My comment was that if it was toxic, it must be in the front office,” La Russa told USA Today.

No one has ever accused La Russa of losing his fastball, and he fired with the same velocity when he spoke with Post-Dispatch Hall of Fame baseball writer Rick Hummel in his defense of Shildt.

Here’s my unsolicited suggestion to both sides of this messy baseball breakup: Either follow La Russa’s lead and speak your whole truth, or drop the topic and move on down separate roads. Air it out or bury it. The veiled shots lobbed back and forth are helping no one and making both look bad. And make no mistake, they have flown both ways.

Go back and listen to what Mozeliak said earlier in this camp about new manager Marmol’s message to the team about Cardinals culture.

"You are either a part of that, and embracing that, or you are probably going to get pushed out," Mozeliak said. "So whenever you are addressing a group of that size, and especially some people that maybe are not familiar with what expectations are here, I think that resonated. It wasn't complicated. It was very simple, to the point. Take advantage of what we have here. But know that we are not looking for distractions. We are looking for people to appreciate and embrace our culture."

Gee, I wonder if Shildt was being referenced there.

Then Shildt, after declining multiple opportunities before, during and after the lockout to further discuss any and all things that led to his firing, decided to kick the beehive days after the Cardinals bring back Pujols.

Some timing.

If Shildt believes he can prove Mozeliak was in the wrong for firing him, he could let it rip, even if it means ripping up whatever agreement he may or may not have signed before the separation was finalized. Or don’t, and move forward, learning from what went wrong and knowing what to look for — and what to avoid — in future baseball bosses.

The best way for Shildt to prove the Cardinals made a mistake, of course, would be for him to get back in the manager’s office and win bigger elsewhere, and seeing as how he drastically improved the Cardinals baserunning and defense and won more than 55% of his games with a roster that too often was lacking, don't be surprised if he does.

But one thing that won’t help him get up on his next horse is fixating on being bucked off his old one. And if Shildt is sincere in wanting Marmol to succeed, comments like the ones published Thursday don't help.

I've defended Shildt plenty in the past. More than most. But these comments just reopened old wounds, more than anything else. Same for Mozeliak's occasional lifting of the lid here and there after initially being so adamant about keeping any and all details private.

We know Mozeliak's initial attempt to classify Shildt's firing as “philosophical differences” flopped from the start; the firing was personal. We know Shildt could run hot and that he clashed with certain front office members and embattled hitting coach Jeff Albert, a Mozeliak hire the front office is committed to backing. We know Shildt was becoming more vocal about the front-office moves he felt would help the club win bigger. We know he ultimately misread how much leverage he had.

"There were just some things that I felt could be better, and I thought I was in a safe place to share them," Shildt told USA Today. "Clearly, I wasn’t.’’

Shildt misread his staying power, and Mozeliak underestimated the public scrutiny he would face after firing a winning manager without a suitable public explanation following a historic 17-game winning streak.

The organization was embarrassed by how the news conference announcing Shildt's firing played out, and it should have been embarrassed again Thursday, when two of its past three managers were, in their own ways, calling out the team's front office in a national news outlet a week out from opening day.

Shildt and the Cardinals front office still have something in common: Both lose when their contentious separation gets revisited without full details.

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