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Bernie: Matheny is right, Cards are family

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Oscar Taveras and Mike Matheny

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny talks to right fielder Oscar Taveras during an August game in Miami. (AP Photo)

It’s difficult to comprehend what the Cardinals are going through in the aftermath of the death of teammate Oscar Taveras. The players are scattered all over the place, trying to settle into their offseason homes and routines.

In one respect, maybe it’s beneficial for the Cardinals to be away from St. Louis, and surrounded by friends and loved ones as they attempt to process the painful, tragic loss of a precious young Cardinal. They can grieve in private, and cope with this shocking death, without having to worry about preparing for a game, or packing for a road trip, or answering a hundred questions about the death of a fellow Cardinal. I would think this is merciful in some way.

On the other hand, the Cardinals are a close group. And if they were together and giving direct support to one another during these turbulent days, their powerful bond could make a positive difference. The 2002 Cardinals pulled one another up after the sudden death of starting pitcher Daryl Kile in June of that season. After the death of reliever Josh Hancock in April 2007, the Cardinals closed ranks to form one strong shoulder for everyone to lean on.

It wasn’t easy for the 2002 and 2007 Cardinals to think about playing baseball during those agonizing times, but at least they could cope as one, vetting their grief and sharing their emotions as they struggled to regroup from a devastating event.

Either way, peace will be elusive.

There is simply no way to short-cut the mourning period.

I believe I know this much: The Cardinals couldn’t have a better manager than Mike Matheny to help guide them through this.

Monday, after Matheny recovered from the initial daze of hearing the news on Taveras, he issued a statement that was pitch perfect. It isn’t possible to craft a better, more graceful message than the one shared by Matheny.

“In my opinion, the word ‘love’ is the most misused, and misunderstood word in the English language,” Matheny wrote in the final passage of his statement. “It is not popular for men to use this word, and even less popular for athletes. But, there is not a more accurate word for how a group of men share a deep and genuine concern for each other. We loved Oscar, and he loved us. That is what a team does, that is what a family does. You will be missed, Oscar.”

Matheny talks about this a lot — a baseball team as a family — even during normal times. It’s easy to scoff; I know I have.

How can a baseball team truly be a family when players are hop-scotching from team to team in pursuit of free-agent dollars? How can a baseball team be a family when the front office has to make cold-hearted financial decisions that require the release or the trade of a player?

Matheny likes to tell us that the Cardinals are a family.

That contradicts a more pragmatic and realistic view: that baseball is a business – with wealthy players and owners and analytical GMs making decisions based on what’s best for their individual interests.

And then one day, without warning, this enterprise is shaken to its core.

A promising young player is dead at age 22, his life and career cut short in a horrific way.

And at a time like this, Matheny’s staunch belief in baseball brotherhood is extremely valuable to his team. I can’t think of a better man to be running this team than No. 22.

What I’m talking about has nothing to do with baseball-strategy decisions, or answering baseball questions, or the daily challenge of managing a game.

During Matheny’s three seasons we’ve spent a lot of time discussing his effective leadership, and how it’s such an important element to what the Cardinals are.

I know a lot of cynical people sneer at that, and that’s fine. But it’s also wrong. Matheny’s leadership is real. The quality inspired GM John Mozeliak to take a chance on hiring the inexperienced Matheny to succeed the retiring Tony La Russa. And that leadership is a plus during the course of the long season.

A big part of a manager’s responsibility is setting a team culture. How do the players go about their obligation to play hard, play smart, and be a good teammate? How does a team collectively respond to adversity? How does a manager earn his players’ trust — so that they will give him their best, even when they are worn down, hurting, frustrated or unhappy with how they’re being utilized?

Matheny is outstanding at managing the human element. He sets the tone. He’s a tough competitor who doesn’t let up behind the scenes. But he also serves his players with positive reinforcement. He won’t embarrass them publicly. He won’t do anything to break the mutual loyalty. And this inner dynamic is essential to this team’s success. That, and talent. Of course. Every manager needs talented players. But talent alone doesn’t guarantee success.

Matheny seemingly broke from his player-relations model this past season when he offered public criticism of Taveras. It was mostly constructive in nature; Matheny emphasized the need for Oscar to work harder, focus harder and earn his playing time.

Given Matheny’s reluctance to call out players, I was taken aback by this. I didn’t think it was fair. After all, Taveras was a rookie — and an especially young 22-year-old rookie at that. And he was struggling in his transition to the majors.

Reflecting back on this, and after talking to a couple of players, I understand that Matheny’s heart was in the right place. The game had always been so simple and easy for Taveras, who still had a lot to learn about being a pro. He was still raw. And Matheny gave Taveras the push that he felt the rookie needed to realize his potential.

That’s one of the regrettable aspects of this tragedy. Taveras was just starting to figure everything out. He was humbled by his initial failure. He came to understand that he had to get better. He began listening to veterans, Jhonny Perata and Jon Jay in particular. OT began to recognize the need to get on a formal strength and conditioning program this winter. He understood that extra work was necessary.

There was a purpose behind Matheny’s tough love.

And as the Cardinals players try to deal with their anguish and move forward the best that they can — and it will take time — Matheny is just what they need in a manager.

Matheny will be available to them 24 hours a day. They can call him. They can cry to him. They can ask for spiritual guidance. As always, Matheny will serve them. And he will find a way to get his guys emotionally ready to play baseball in 2015.

Unfortunately, Matheny has experience in this area. He was a touchstone for the 2002 team, which leaned on him when the players were torn up by Kile’s death. Matheny never made a big show of it, but his quiet strength was a huge factor in the team’s recovery from a deeply personal blow.

As the on-field leader of the Cardinals, Matheny is in a stronger position to help as the Cardinals try to keep it together following this unspeakably sad death to a young core player.

Matheny was right, after all.

This baseball team is a family. It may sound corny. It may strike some as a forced narrative. But here’s the truth: Matheny is a leader of men, and the Cardinals need him now more than ever.

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Bernie Miklasz is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Related to this story

Thousands line streets of his hometown to say farewell to Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras,, who had attained the dream of playing in the major leagues. 

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