It was an uncharacteristic and unexpected move when the St. Louis Cardinals parted ways midseason with seventh-year manager Mike Matheny on July 15.
The plodding and conservative Cardinals broke with the script again Tuesday by lifting the interim tag from manager Mike Shildt before the season’s end.
Shildt, 50, who has led the once-struggling Cardinals to a 26-12 record since Matheny’s ouster two days before the MLB All-Star Game, was officially appointed the franchise’s 64th skipper since Ned Cuthbert took the top step for the St. Louis Brown Stockings in 1882. The contract keeps him in that position through the 2020 season. Other terms were not released.
“This is not something I take lightly,” Shildt said. “I’m very grateful for my family. Like (Cardinals owner Bill) DeWitt, I grew up in a clubhouse around baseball. I got my ABCs of baseball at an early age.
“I have been given a lot of credit for what’s happened in the past six weeks. I appreciate it, but I cannot accept it. We have good players.”
A candidate for the position by virtue of his 15 years of consistent advancement through the organization, it was nonetheless believed the team would wait out the season before taking a more measured approach to filling the vacant seat. Shildt pressed the issue, not by lobbying the front office, but by leading the team past seven others in the National League wild card chase with a 19-5 record in August.
“I will say that we did do some due diligence to know what the managerial market would look like had we gotten there, but as we stated from day one, we were going to use this as a time to really see how he handled the job,” said Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak. “For us, we just felt we could not do better.
“He’s checking a lot of boxes along the way, but clearly the relationship he has with our players and our coaching staff, as well as our front office and ownership, it just made this a very seamless decision and one we didn’t agonize over too much.”
Shildt was as surprised — “pleasantly,” he said — by the early vote of confidence as anyone. That, in itself, surprised Mozeliak, but underscored the new manager’s unassuming but persistent nature.
A native of North Carolina, Shildt has worked for the Cardinals since 2004 and managed for eight seasons in the minors. His teams won an Appalachian League championship in 2010 and a Texas League title the following year. He most recently managed in triple-A Memphis, yielding to Stubby Clapp, who Tuesday was awarded his second consecutive Pacific Coast League Manager of the Year award.
Joe Girardi, a Peoria native and former New York Yankees manager, had expressed his interest in the Cardinals’ vacancy and became the immediate front-runner for the job. Former Cardinals stars Mark McGwire and Carlos Beltran were among other candidates whose names surfaced.
Ultimately, Mozeliak couldn’t ignore the renaissance under Shildt. The Cardinals 131 runs scored in July and 126 so far in August are their best two months offensively. Their 73 runs allowed this month would be their fewest.
“The trajectory we were on, you think back to 2016 and ‘17 and how we were playing in ‘18, and yet we were still doing the same things over and over again,” Mozeliak said. “The one thing we’ve seen under Shildt is that he’s changed the process and been very intentional about that.
“We are no longer doing what we were doing and guess what? The outcome has changed.”
Some issue has been made of the fact that Shildt has never played the game professionally himself. The experience with the Cardinals young roster and his record as a minor league coach more than adequately make up for that, Mozeliak said.
“Could you take any other guy with Mike’s background and stick in him the managerial spot? Probably not,” Mozeliak said. “But when you factor in his career and who he’s worked with, he’s probably managed 90 to 95 percent of that clubhouse already.”
Shildt assumes a roster of young players with which he’s grown up through the Cardinals’ system. His lack of on-field experience does nothing to shake his confidence in himself or a staff of other organizational mainstays like Jose Oquendo, Willie McGee and the batting-coach tandem of Mark Budaska and George Greer.
“I’ve never thought about it in a sense of whether I’ve played or not played,” he said. “I carry the sense of concern, preparation and love for the players. I have to earn their trust and respect every day. I’ve taken that as my mantra ever since I started coaching.”
Matheny led the Cardinals to the postseason in each of his first four seasons, including a National League championship in 2013 and 100 wins in 2015. Still, he entered the current season under fire for having missed the playoffs the past two years as issues with team defense and baserunning continued.
A frustrating loss to the rival Chicago Cubs capped a July run in which the team dropped five of six games. Just one game above the .500 mark, the Cardinals announced Matheny would not return to the dugout and that Shildt would be the interim.
The on-field issues that had been festering under Matheny, improved in short order under Shildt. Pinning down defensive rotation that includes more of rookie Harrison Bader in centerfield and more of Matt Carpenter at first base has been part of the transformation.
“We have good players, that’s part of it, and we’ve got really good instructors that help them prepare,” he said. “Letting them know where they are going to play with consistency, I think, allowed to be able to relax and create some continuity in how we play the game fundamentally.”