It wasn't an easy task for Mike Matheny to replace Tony La Russa, a Hall of Fame manager, doubly so considering Matheny had no managing experience before his hiring by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012. Fast forward to six years later, and the Cardinals are in search for their third manager in the last decade.
The Cardinals sit third in the NL Central. Their record of 48-46 leaves them seven and a half games out of first place behind the Chicago Cubs as we enter the All-Star Break. But if the Cardinals are to gain any momentum in the second half, team-wide numbers direly need improvement, for currently, they are in a six-way tie for the 17th best average in baseball (.244), 19th in slugging (.399), and dead last with a .978 fielding percentage.
If they want to push for the playoffs, mediocrity will not do.
Matheny's firing, surprising as it was, seems to be the right move. In Missouri there languished a stagnant team, rife with strange clubhouse dynamics that seem outdated and out of place in today's game. But now they seek a shakeup, and when the time comes to address the managerial vacancy that is being temporarily held by interim manager Mike Shildt, the Cardinals may seek to extend an offering to Joe Girardi.
When the Yankees announced they weren't signing Joe Girardi to a new contract, shortly after their Game 7 loss in the ALCS to the Houston Astros, it was widely believed his return as a manager would be a matter of when, not if.
His dismissal, by no means an indication of his abilities as a manager, resulted from a desire to bring a new voice in the Yankees' clubhouse. Girardi was the victim of the manager's shelf-life, much as his predecessor, Joe Torre, was. It's what every manager must eventually face; ultimately you must move on.
But Girardi will fondly be remembered as the man who helped herald in a new era in Yankees baseball by winning the World Series in 2009 while also being at the helm for the next great wave of homegrown Yankee talent. He cultivated a clubhouse mixed with budding stars and established veterans; he saw the end of all-time greats like Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez, while simultaneously navigating the meteoric rise of Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Luis Severino.
With the impending youth movement getting ready to shake up the Cardinals' roster, it would be wise to bring Girardi in to oversee its development. In Girardi, the Cardinals would get an alumnus, as Girardi was with the Cardinals when he called it a career in 2003. By car, St. Louis is only two-and-a-half hours from Peoria, Illinois, where Girardi grew up, so a return to St. Louis would be of a homecoming for Girardi while also being a new beginning for him and his family.
But with all sentimentality put aside, Girardi brings what Matheny never had: experience. The hardware speaks for itself, an NL Manager of the Year award with the Florida Marlins, three World Series titles (two as a player), and 988 wins as a manager with the Marlins and Yankees. The man knows how to be successful, and he knows what it's like to be the leader of a proud and recognizable franchise.
Create a new clubhouse culture
Upon close inspection in the archived footage of postgame press conferences, one could wonder who bore the greater burden on their shoulders: Atlas, the condemned titan who bore the weight of the world, or Joe Girardi, who Yankeedom demanded so much from?
Yes, Girardi's overbearing nature, alleged communication issues, and grind-it-out approach to a 162-game season ultimately ended his tenure in New York. It looked as if he loathed his duty as Yankee manager rather than enjoy it. He was often mocked as "Binder Joe" due to his persistence to do everything by the book, to rely on the numbers and metrics more than the far simpler eye test. But under Girardi, there was honesty, however harsh it could be, and there was accountability, a willing vulnerability that could suddenly produce cracks in the hard exterior Girardi so often wore.
With Matheny, there was an old-school demeanor in a game that's been constantly revolutionizing into a modern identity. Matheny was the first to be hired with little to no experience, with Aaron Boone (Yankees) Dave Roberts (Dodgers) and Alex Cora (Red Sox) being some of the latest examples. But he lacked the one asset that was prioritized by those teams: communication. Reports surfaced that Matheny and outfielder Dexter Fowler deteriorated so much that the two had hardly spoken to each other. Then there was the issue between Bud Norris, the proud owner of a career 4.45 career ERA, and rookie sensation Jordan Hicks, an example of another divisive relationship between old school mentality and new school talent. All the while, Matheny did nothing.
With Girardi, a new clubhouse dynamic can be established. Accountability can be held, and a fresh line of communication established between players and coaching staff. Girardi is a family man, clear in comments made after the 2017 ALCS, and his tenure with the Yankees ended with a close clubhouse between the rising studs and grandfathered veterans. There's no reason to think Girardi wouldn't be able to do it again in St. Louis.
Mike Matheny wore out his welcome in St. Louis. The Cardinals are at a crossroads, a ship with no bearing and no captain at the helm. Whether they ride out the season or seek a midseason replacement remains to be seen.
But there are options available for this proud and historic franchise. Matheny's successor should be someone who knows how to handle such an atmosphere, who knows how to handle the expectations of success in a big-market city while also carefully navigating a wave of young talent prepared to replace the old guard.
Time will tell what the Cardinals will do, but they will have a reliable option in Joe Girardi.