Mike Matheny doesn’t even have the job yet and already Royals fans are split. Some will trust whoever general manager Dayton Moore hires as manager. Some see Matheny as toxic, with a trail of criticisms of his strategy and clubhouse management from St. Louis as disqualifications.
(Others — local sports columnist raises his hand — believe the importance of a big-league manager is usually overstated because games and seasons and championships are determined by the quality of players.)
But either way, the choice of manager is at least deeply telling of how an organization sees itself, what it wants to be and the way it plans to succeed.
Which is why I spent the last few days reading Matheny’s best-selling 2017 autobiography, “The Matheny Manifesto.”
The book’s title borrows from the shorthand given to a letter Matheny wrote to parents before coaching a youth baseball team.
The first sentence: “I always said that the only team that I would coach would be a team of orphans.” It’s among the great ledes in sportswriting history. The letter quickly went viral.
The Royals have not yet hired a manager to replace Ned Yost, for a few reasons. But Matheny is the leading candidate and here are three first impressions from reading his book:
1. If my boys play baseball (or any other sport) competitively I would love for them to be in a program like Matheny’s.
2. If Matheny used any of his youth team principles for his last big-league team I can see exactly why it didn’t work.
3. Holy smokes it’s easy to see why Moore is interested.
Let’s do these in order.
The second sentence of Matheny’s letter — “... the biggest problem with youth sports has been the parents” — is another eye catcher.
Now, if we take that literally, we can argue the merits. For instance, I’d point out that the professionalization of youth sports is a scourge and often reverses the benefits so many of us see in competition.
Priorities get perverted, goals are shifted, many kids get excluded and growth becomes stunted. But you could also argue that the professionalization would not exist if parents did not create the market.
Matheny describes a program that prioritizes process over results, fundamentals over flash, personal growth over short-term focus and long-term development over heavy travel schedules.
Practices include “class time” about subtle baseball strategy and messages about life. Teams took on service projects like the Challenger League and picking up garbage at big-league games.
I could personally do without tying it all to religion — “Biblical truths as our moral compass,” Matheny writes at one point — but the principles are sound.
Sports should be a way to create memories and friendships, and to teach kids how to win and lose and compete. At their best, amateur sports give a lot of us tools that help us navigate life.
That’s the focus of Matheny’s program. That should be the focus of all youth programs.
That Matheny believes so strongly in these principles is a window into his world view. We don’t usually get that with major-league managers.
We need to start this section here: Matheny’s book is full of acknowledgments that the priorities of his youth program could never be the focus of a successful big-league team.
And, as a plain matter of truth, much of what he’s been criticized for from his seven seasons with the Cardinals was not offering enough patience or support for young players. That’s the complete opposite of the manifesto stuff.
But there is some connective tissue in the autonomy Matheny demanded with the youth team and some of the problems with the Cardinals.
Most specifically, a report by The Athletic left the impression that Matheny deployed veteran closer Bud Norris as something like the team’s VP of discipline. Norris was “mercilessly riding” 21-year-old rookie Jordan Hicks, with Matheny issuing fines based on Norris’ input. Hicks later downplayed the problems in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In at least some baseball circles, Matheny’s personality management and leadership style remain open questions.
It’s often noted that the 2018 Cardinals were 47-46 before Matheny was fired, and 41-28 after. Matheny took over after the Cardinals’ 2011 world championship and became the first manager to qualify for the postseason in each of his first four years.
The Cardinals missed the next three postseasons, then advanced to the NLCS this fall, their first full season without Matheny.
The Royals are willing to look past the potential red flags for at least two reasons.
First, seven seasons is a long time for a manager. When he was fired, Matheny had managed the Cardinals longer than all but six of his peers had managed their teams. Of that group, only Oakland’s Bob Melvin remains with his club.
Second, the Royals’ leadership core prioritizes experience. Trey Hillman bombed with no experience. Hiring a manager with previous experience but without previous failure is a virtual impossibility. Moore and his assistants generally believe that smart people learn from failure.
Connection with Moore
As much as perhaps any time in baseball history, a manager and general manager need to be aligned.
The last decade or two has seen a power shift where many decisions that used to solely belong to a manager are now shared or sometimes dictated completely by the front office — from roster management to lineups and in-game strategy.
There must be a shared vision between the two leaders, then, and parts of Matheny’s book read like they could have been authored by Moore:
A working-class childhood, an intellectual curiosity that borrows from others in sports and business, a strong faith, an occasionally corny sense of humor and especially a devotion to what’s been come to be known as servant leadership.
It’s a style that’s grown in profile in recent years and, at least with Moore, is a direct reflection of world view. He sees a larger purpose in baseball.
That’s why he said the thing about the 2013 season feeling like a World Series “in a small way,” and why he put so much work — even through the rush of 2014 and 2015 — into the Urban Youth Academy. The broader message in Matheny’s book is entirely similar.
Moore and Yost did not always agree. There were times that Moore wished Yost would tweak his approach on some things, and (particularly the last few years) times Yost wished Moore gave him more pitching.
Those types of conflicts are inevitable and were always managed with mutual respect. Yost had a history in baseball — including 12 years in Atlanta, where Moore grew up in the game — that meshed with what the Royals wanted to accomplish.
It’s obvious Moore and Matheny have a lot in common. That’s an important start, assuming it gets that far.