When Mike Matheny was fired late this past Saturday evening, one of the first thoughts that ran through my mind was this:
Now we know what the 2004 Cubs looked like to the rest of the league.
Baseball is so much more fun when it’s the other teams dissolving into chaos. The only way this month of Cardinal baseball could get any better is if Tommy Pham took a bat to Bud Norris’s iPhone for blasting “Take a Knee, My Ass” on repeat since February.
Watching Matheny go down in flames has been especially satisfying since it happened only a couple weeks after the Cardinals organization made the decision to throw Dexter Fowler under the clydesdale wagon. And with St. Louis coming into town tomorrow, I can’t be the only Cub fan who spent the break trying to learn morse code just in case Dexter gives a WGN interview while blinking “How can I join Clark’s Crew?”
Remember when the NBCSN cameras caught Anthony Rizzo talking on the dugout phone in San Diego? Last week, dozens of Cub fans made it into a Twitter meme where Anthony appeared to be informing Matheny he was fired. Which was fun. But based on how the Cardinals treated one of his best friends, there was a better chance he was placing a call to John Mozeliak to inform him “what I do have are a very particular set of skills…”
Fowler’s plight has gotten a lot of coverage in Chicago because we as a fanbase still think the world of the leadoff hitter for the greatest and most celebrated Cubs team of all time (14th inning heel turns notwithstanding). And with this soap opera becoming one of the last straws in Matheny’s tenure, it could be seen as a conflict between the philosophies of two different managers playing out within the modern game. But it’s not necessarily the ones you’re thinking of.
Because the battle for Fowler’s soul was really about Joe Maddon vs. Tony LaRussa.
See, even though Mike Matheny had been managing in St. Louis since 2012, his leadership was always an attempt to continue the LaRussa era, only with a manager who presumably knew the proper order of the alphabet. Matheny received LaRussa’s endorsement from the moment he was hired and six years later, the Hall of Fame skipper was still eager to give him votes of confidence from afar.
Even after being given over half a decade to establish his own identity, Mike Matheny remained unable to escape the fact that in St. Louis, he’d always be Tony LaRussa’s Oates.
And in many ways, he ended up embracing it by carrying on the LaRussa traditions of adherence to old school baseball philosophy, brute force retaliation for any perceived slights, and thin skinned responses to criticism. But there was one LaRussa/Matheny philosophy in particular that played a major role in Fowler’s problems:
In the culture that LaRussa created and Matheny propagated, losing was hell on earth. Both of them believed that one loss was like watching their souls corrode, unable to outrun the omnipresent reminders of their failure. And a win only meant putting that off until tomorrow.
Basically, LaRussa was baseball’s Franz Kafka. And Matheny was that kid in your philosophy class who though he “got” Kafka because he bought a Suicide Squad shirt at Hot Topic.
As LaRussa’s sportswriting confidante Buzz Bissinger put it, “He managed out of fear, the fear of losing a game because he missed something he should not have missed.” And Cardinal reddit fanboy with a book deal Will Leitch observed that “The guy takes losses harder than anyone I’ve seen in sports…[he] was obsessed with control in a sport where he had so little control, and there were times where you thought that struggle would someday kill him…”
Fun, huh? It turns out that the only thing keeping LaRussa alive during baseball season was The Grim Reaper’s fear that he’d get fined for wearing his hood tilted to the left.
Matheny watched LaRussa do this to himself and his team every day for five years as a player. But the Cardinals made the playoffs in four of those seasons and somewhere along the line the message sunk in… baseball as a form of self-torture works. To the point where just this past offseason Matheny admitted:
“So badly, I wish I could have had more fun when I played… but I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how ‘fun’ and ‘compete’ work together. It makes no sense to me.”
Oof. Now we know what The Sandlot would have sounded like if it were directed by Tim Burton. If there’s one positive Matheny can take from his firing, it’s that he can now devote all of his time to his night job as new lead singer of The Smiths.
This atmosphere has surrounded the Cardinals since 1996. So it’s not too surprising that they tried to crush the player with the best smile in MLB. As Matheny admitted, he doesn’t understand how such a thing is compatible with baseball.
It seems almost unfair to quote Joe Maddon after spending several paragraphs that essentially answer the question: “What would it look like if David Eckstein kept a goth journal?” But to get a sense of scope of the gulf between the Cubs and Cardinals cultures, this seems like the best place to remind you how Maddon wants his players to react to the inevitable ups and downs of the season…
“I just think it’s very important to celebrate. I want us to win hard for 30 minutes. I want us to lose hard for 30 minutes and then move on.”
We’re all pretty familiar with that quote by this point. But what’s equally important is the next part where Maddon told the beat writers what he had noticed in the past when players and managers hung onto the pain of losing and brought it with them to the ballpark on the next day…
“That’s ridiculous, and that’s why teams get into long losing streaks.”
At this point, we know the Maddon trademarks by heart. Don’t let the pressure exceed the pleasure. The process is fearless. If you look hot, wear it. It’s all part of why the Cubs have such a great morale. But that explanation reveals that there is also an important strategic element to Maddon’s outlook.
Simply put, he believes that it prevents a team from burying itself when the breaks turn against them. So while it drives us nuts when Maddon remains unrelentingly positive in the face of adversity, that’s the method to his upbeat madness.
It’s also the pragmatic reasoning behind Maddon encouraging his players to establish something seemingly frivolous like the party room. Meanwhile, under LaRussa and Matheny, the Cardinals constantly felt one day away from changing the name on their alternate unis to “Town From Footloose.”
It’s no wonder that Fowler experienced a bit of a crisis going from a manager who all but demanded that he stop dwelling on a loss after a half hour to a culture where the team literally wears a scarlet “L” on their caps. And this culture shock has made a big difference in reversing the longstanding perceptions of both teams–as an anonymous Cardinal told Bernie Miklasz:
“You see Joe Maddon, the way he manages the Cubs. He’s happy. The players are happy. What do you think Joe does when he goes home after a game? Opens a good bottle of wine. Probably puts on some great music. He may be dancing with his wife. He goes to sleep happy. He comes to the ballpark happy. The players are happy to see him. They want to be around him. Happy people…
“Our guy just keeps stressing everybody out.”
That’s why Mike Matheny isn’t working anymore. And it’s also the legacy of the LaRussa style of managing. But most importantly, it has led to this…
For the first time in our lives, the St. Louis Cardinals are looking at the Chicago Cubs organization with envy. And that’s reason to celebrate for way longer than 30 minutes.
Lead photo courtesy Gary A. Vasquez—USA Today Sports