Mike Matheny is cordial, professional and very serious. You can expect straight and polite answers to questions, but you don’t yuck it up with the Cardinals’ skipper.
He’s all business, just like the rest of the Redbirds.
When the uniforms are buttoned and the stadium lights come on, they tend to the task at hand like men at work, not overgrown boys at play.
Tony La Russa was fond of reminding us that players are “men, not machines.” In their assembly-line production of 100 wins this season — even when injuries and other setbacks conspired to block their path to another postseason — the efficient Cardinals sometimes look very much to the contrary.
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If you want to live your life based on the outcome, you’re going to be fearful a lot and, when you’re doing that, you’re not really living in the particular moment.
Joe Maddon, Cubs manager
But the Chicago Cubs managed to throw a monkey wrench into the mechanics of the Cardinal Way. They did so as a reflection of their own manager, Joe Maddon, whose horn-rimmed glasses, goatee and amiable laugh make him a cross between a hipster and the old man from the movie “Up.”
He’s quite a contrast to the more sober Matheny and so were the two ballclubs.
The Cubs dismantled the Cardinals in four games of the NLDS while somehow managing to look like they were having fun. Maddon kept his young Cubbies cool and loose despite the comparative histories of the two franchises and all the chatter that comes with that.
Outside of St. Louis, the Cardinals are an evil baseball empire, reviled for their habit of showing up every October to dash the hopes of whatever new upstart comes their way. For Chicago north siders, the divisional series might as well have been the 1980 U.S. hockey team against the Russians.
Those “lovable losers,” meanwhile, hadn’t been in the postseason since 2008 and hadn’t won a playoff series since 2003. A world championship? That’s the best-documented drought in all of sports.
After the Cardinals battered Jon Lester — Chicago’s $26 million-per-year pitcher — in Game 1 of the NLDS, it was plain to see in social media that Cubs fans were bracing themselves for another disappointment.
But the appropriately named Cubs — whose average age among their eight starters is about 26 — didn’t know what they didn’t know about the rivalry and its history. And Maddon wasn’t about to remind them.
He lets us relax and have fun and I think that’s huge ... He’s had success for a reason
Dexter Fowler, Cubs center fielder
Instead, he instructed his team to play ball, enjoy the ride and let the Cardinals deal with the pressure.
“If you want to live your life based on the outcome, you’re going to be fearful a lot and, when you’re doing that, you’re not really living in the particular moment ...” Maddon said prior to Game 2. “For our fans back home, please go ahead and be worried, but understand that from our perspective in the clubhouse, we’re more worried about the process than the outcome.”
The process was loose, relaxed and fun — you could see it in the way the Cubs played —and we all know the outcome.
Every day from last Wednesday’s wild-card win against the Pirates to Tuesday’s clincher against the Cardinals was just like any another October game on national television against a hated divisional rival. In Maddon’s dugout, the only difference between that and any other game was the party on West Addison afterward.
Meanwhile, with every flailing swing at a pitch in the dirt, the weight of expectation bore down a little heavier on the rigid Redbirds.
Fear? Pressure? History? “I don’t vibrate at that frequency,” Maddon said.
Even during the playoffs, batting practice is optional. His off-day workout between Games 2 and 3 consisted of breakfast at Wrigley and watching the NFL in the team clubhouse.
It’s an effective way to manage a young club, says Cubs leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler, who at 31 is the lineup’s most senior citizen. He should know — he’s had six managers during his eight-year career.
“He lets us relax and have fun and I think that’s huge,” Fowler said. “He doesn’t get too uptight. He lets the veterans in the clubhouse manage the clubhouse, and he goes out and manages on the field ... He’s had success for a reason.”
And now so have those lowly, but loose, Cubs.