Louis Meyer, Contributing Writer
As the 2018 season began, the Cardinals were picked by many, including their radically devoted fans, to be a playoff team and even a serious contender. While the Cardinals did not land the star-studded Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton, they were able to obtain another Miami outfielder. Marcell Ozuna had a break-out 2017 campaign, hitting 37 home runs with 124 RBI’s to go along with a .312 batting average. The Cardinals also added a starting pitcher from the Japanese League, Miles Mikolas. While his first stint in the Major League Baseball wasn’t very successful, the Cardinals took a chance on him after watching him tear through hitters in Japan. These two signings, coupled with a few smaller ones, seemed to have the Cardinals on a path leading to a playoff berth, and more importantly, a World Series berth.
However, it did not take long for the Cardinals to veer off this path. In fact, some might argue that the Cardinals veered off the path starting on Opening Day. Pitching was an issue right out of the gate, both starting and relieving. The defense was horrendous and only got worse as the Injury Bug struck early. Offensive anchors such as Matt Carpenter, Marcell Ozuna and Paul Dejong, were all huge ruts at the plate. The entire team just seemed to be in an overall funk. Through all of this, there was one constant. A constant that many fans had come to realize might just be the reason why the Cardinals had been golfing in October the last two seasons … manager Mike Matheny.
It’s December 2011. Fresh off winning their MLB second best, 11th World Series, the Cardinals and their fans are left stunned. Manager Tony La Russa retired after managing the Cardinals for the previous 16 seasons, leading them to three World Series and winning two of them. Five weeks later, three-time N.L. MVP and Cardinals superstar first basemen, Albert Pujols left St. Louis and signed a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels. In the wake of these two huge pieces departing, the Cardinals and their fans were left to wonder what the future would hold.
Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak and owner William DeWitt Jr. immediately looked to fill the most important of two voids, the manager position. According to STL Today, the Cardinals interviewed six candidates for the position. That list included Terry Francona and Hall of Fame second basemen Ryne Sandberg in addition to Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo, Memphis Redbirds manager Chris Maloney and Chicago White Sox coach and former Cardinal Joe McEwing. Of the entire list, Matheny was the most inexperienced candidate by a long shot. Terry Francona had guided the Boston Red Sox to two World Series Championships, including one in 2004 where they beat the Cardinals. Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo was already a popular guy in the clubhouse, especially with star players Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina. Despite being the candidate with the least experience, the Cardinals elected to hire Mike Matheny.
While inexperienced as a manager, there were three key qualities that the Cardinals were drawn to. The first quality was Matheny’s history with the organization. Matheny, a former catcher, spent five of his 13 seasons behind the plate in St. Louis. His last season in St. Louis, 2004, resulted in a trip to the World Series. However, with the emergence of rookie catcher, Yadier Molina, the team and Matheny parted ways. The second quality was Matheny’s leadership. After Cardinals starting pitcher Darryl Kile’s sudden death in 2002, Matheny stepped up and helped the team cope with the tragic loss. First basemen Albert Pujols called Matheny an
“inspirational leader.” Matheny continued to be a team leader and a popular player within the clubhouse until his departure in 2004. The third and final quality that the Cardinals were drawn to was Matheny’s experience working with developing players in the team’s farm system. Many of the players Matheny worked with would end up playing for him over the next seven years.
When the announcement came down that the Cardinals hired Mike Matheny to be their new manager, it was met by mixed opinions from fans. While Matheny wasn’t a superstar, he was popular among the fanbase during his time in St. Louis. He also possessed strong ties to the city as well. His children attended Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis County where the Matheny family also resided. Despite all of this, many fans remained skeptical of the hire. Matheny had no experience managing at the major league level or even the minor league level. Seven years later that skepticism would prove true as Matheny’s shortcomings became too much for the organization to handle.
For the first four seasons, it appeared as through the Cardinals had struck gold. Matheny led the Cardinals to the National League Championship Series (NLCS) in his first year, following that up by leading the team to the World Series appearance in 2013. Matheny’s success continued as he led the Cardinals to the NLCS in 2014. However, 2015 brought frustration as the Cardinals lost to their bitter rivals, the Chicago Cubs, in the National League Division Series (NLDS). 2016 and 2017 brought even more frustration as Matheny and the Cardinals missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons for the first time since 2007–8. As his success began to fade and the pressure began to mount, Matheny began to show his true colors.
As the 2018 season began, the Cardinals devoted fanbase made it known that Matheny was on the infamous “hot seat.” As the season moved into May and the Cardinals’ struggles continued, the voice to fire Matheny only grew louder. In June, it was revealed that Matheny failed to communicate with starting pitcher Alex Reyes about some discomfort Reyes was dealing with. That discomfort turned out to be a torn tendon in the lat muscle, which resulted in a season ending surgery. Matheny acknowledged that Reyes complained of discomfort, but that he wasn’t “too concerned” at the time. Matheny later backtracked, saying “players need to be honest when they are experiencing pain and discomfort so that the medical staff can give them to best care.”
Five weeks later, with the team still struggling to stay above the .500 mark, another bombshell on Matheny was dropped. Mark Saxon of the Athletic published a report that detailed the harassment and borderline bullying of relief pitcher Jordan Hicks by fellow relief pitcher, Bud Norris. Matheny only made matters worse when he stated that he was OK with the treatment, stating “that’s how we did it in the old days.” Saxon also reported that Norris was Matheny’s “snitch,” with Matheny even going as far as fining players based on reports from Norris. These accusations, coupled with the team struggling and the fan base demanding change, made it clear that Matheny had become a cancer within the organization. A cancer that needed to be removed.
July 14, 2018, the Cardinals fired Mike Matheny. Hitting coach John Mabry and assistant hitting coach Bill Mueller were also fired. The Cardinals promoted bench coach Mike Shildt to interim manager. Former New York Yankee’s manager Joe Girardi was immediately considered the favorite to be the team’s next manager.
As the Cardinals limped into the All-Star break, new reports about Matheny and his skills as a manager continued to pop up. According to STL Today, Matheny had created a rift between himself and certain players. Another STL Today article revealed that Matheny had completely ignoring advice from pitching coach Mike Maddux and 9-time gold glove winning catcher Yadier Molina on when to pull starting pitchers and on which relief pitcher to put into the game. Some experts even questioned if Matheny’s stint of success wasn’t a direct result of the guys that Tony La Russa had previously brought in.
With Shildt at the helm however, the Cardinals looked like a completely different team. The defense looked better, the starting pitching tightened up and the bullpen looked more and more confident. The Cardinals went on a scorching run, which saw them win 10 straight series, including multiple sweeps. Aug. 28, 2018, despite managing less than 100 games, the Cardinals removed Shildt’s interim tag and made him the manager with a deal through the 2020 season. Just like with Matheny, many fans are skeptical. Shildt was also as inexperienced as Matheny was when he first started.
After watching the recent moves made by the Cardinal’s organization, I think they are skeptical of Shildt as well. While Joe Girardi was the most talked about name to replace Matheny, there were others. In fact, one of those names was someone who was already in the organization: The coach for the Cardinals Triple-A affiliate the Memphis Redbirds, Stubby Clapp.
Oct. 29, 2018, the Cardinals promoted Clapp to the role of first base coach. At first glance this may seem inconsequential, however I believe that this is the Cardinals preparing for the future. Clapp’s record speaks for itself. In two seasons as the manager of the Memphis Redbirds, Clapp went 174-107 (.619), which resulted in the team winning the 2017 and 2018 Pacific coast League Championship and the 2018 Triple-A National Championship. Clapp’s 174 regular season wins were the most in a two-year span by Memphis clubs since 1933–34. Clapp also achieved this success even though many of his players were either traded or promoted to the Cardinals 25-man roster.
Clapp has also been praised for the energy he brings and for the work he does mentoring young players and helping to set them up for success at the big league level.
So why take this man away from a job he is excelling at? A crucially important job when you consider the Cardinals’ reliance on home-grown talent. The answer is simple, the Cardinals want him to take over as manager if Shildt doesn’t work out. That’s all and good, however why not leave him in Memphis until he is needed? The answer? The Cardinals do not want Clapp to leave the organization and they also want him to bond with the team.
Teams like the Toronto Blue Jays were looking at Clapp to be their next manager. Seeing this unfold, the Cardinals needed a way to hold on to Clapp. Promoting him to first base coach takes care of that. Not only is he untouchable for the time being, but the promotion shows Clapp that the organization needs him at the big league level, which is a huge compliment and show of respect.
If you’re a Cardinals fan and are skeptical of Shildt, good, you should be. While Shildt has performed well thus far, fans are too easily reminded of the great start Matheny had to his tenure. But have no fear Cardinals fans, the organization has a backup plan. Whether they knowingly or unknowingly did it. Who knows, next season we might be chanting “Stubby Clapp, Stubby Clapp.” You must admit, it has a nice ring to it.