It’s been a tough St. Louis Cardinals season to watch at times as fans were forced to witness one star player after another go down due to injury.
Sure, the team ran up a great record and spent most of the season in first place.
But it was difficult to enjoy because it seemed unrealistic to hope for great things from a club that lost three starting pitchers, its set-up man, its third and cleanup hitters and a host of supporting players for large chunks of the season. It felt like it was only a matter of time until healthier Pittsburgh Pirates and/or Chicago Cubs clubs would overtake the Cardinals.
We could all finally stop holding our breath Wednesday night when manager Mike Matheny somehow guided the Redbirds to their 100th win and a National League Central Division crown.
Now it is safe to fully enjoy the spirit of this team -- and stop planning its seemingly inevitable funeral.
What a ride it’s been.
It’s incredible that it is widely conceded that Joe Maddon of the Cubs will win MLB’s manager of the year award. How could a guy who will lead his promising, young team to a third place finish in the NL Central have possibly done a better job than the guy who led a team devastated by injuries to the best record in baseball?
This is an apples to apples comparison. The Cardinals and Cubs play in the same division against the same competition. Add up the wins. Matheny was better.
There should be no debate.
But Matheny isn’t a flashy choice. He doesn’t seek a lot of attention. He’s low key and doesn’t issue bombastic statements like the canned controversy Maddon tried to create when the Cardinals were in Chicago a few days ago.
With Matheny there is no self promotion, subtle or otherwise. There are no parlor tricks, no smoke an mirrors. All the Cardinals do is win, win and win.
How could Maddon beat out Matheny?
It’s simple. This is about baseball writers predicting in April that Maddon would be manager of the year -- and then congratulating themselves on being right despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary. How can there be any doubt at this point that Matheny does an incredible job of molding a collection of individuals into a close-knit, selfless team?
I, as much as anyone, raised an eyebrow when the Cardinals chose to turn over the defending World Series champions to a guy who never managed in any professional capacity. But Matheny has earned respect by becoming the first skipper to lead his team to the playoffs in his first four seasons at the helm.
To those who dismiss Matheny’s accomplishments on the grounds that he was handed a talented roster, I submit the 2015 Washington Nationals as Exhibit A. And the Detroit Tigers as Exhibit B.
Talent is no promise of success if resources aren’t used effectively and individuals don’t get along well as a team. The Los Angeles Dodgers, the most expensive talent pool in professional sports, were prohibitive favorites the last two times the Cardinals met them in the playoffs. Yet it was Matheny who walked away from those series with the victory.
This team loves to play for Matheny. There’s no doubt about that. While his predecessor, Tony La Russa, was a polarizing figure who alienated some players with his relentless personality, Matheny seems to be universally respected within the walls of the Cardinals clubhouse. Let’s not underestimate the importance of that.
There are lots of different types of managers. Some are innovators like Whitey Herzog who went against the grain of baseball and sacrificed a traditional offense built on power hitters for an offense built on speed. They try to make something happen outside the box to make up for their shortcomings. Then there are guys like Red Schoendienst and Joe Torre who knew they had talented players and allowed them to maximize their abilities by not micromanaging their every move.
Make no mistake. The players know who is in charge. Ultimately, the responsibility falls on the skipper. But sometimes you’ve gotta let the players play.
I’m sure Matheny doesn’t care, for the most part, if he gets the recognition of being named manager of the year.
He’d probably much prefer the respect that comes from adding a World Series championship to his managerial resume.
Here’s to hoping he proves the critics wrong by guiding his team all the way to its 12th championship.
Congratulations skipper. At least in St. Louis, we recognize what a super job you did this year.