November 14, 2011: Cardinals name Mike Matheny manager

Just 15 days after Tony La Russa announced his retirement, the St. Louis Cardinals named Mike Matheny the 49th manager in franchise history.

The hire represented a stark shift for the Cardinals less than a month after they won their 11th World Series championship. La Russa had retired with 2,728 career wins, just 35 behind John McGraw for the second most in modern-day baseball history. That total included 1,408 wins with the Cardinals, more than any other manager in St. Louis history.

In Matheny, the Cardinals were hiring a man who had no professional coaching or managerial experience. So what did team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and general manager John Mozeliak see in the former Cardinals catcher?

“A lot of people have been asking that question,” Mozeliak said. “He is a student of the game. He knows what’s going on. Now, when he steps in that dugout the first time, there’s no doubt things are going to be moving a little quicker than even he anticipated, but with a supporting cast that we’re going to put around him, with how smart he is, how intelligent he is in his ability to adapt and adjust, he can handle that.”[1]

DeWitt said that in choosing La Russa’s replacement, the Cardinals were seeking attributes over experience.

“All great managers started somewhere. I think the lack of experience is there. Any time you do something new, it’s an unknown. What we were looking for are characteristics that would make a manager successful, and he’s got those.”[2]

Matheny had been a four-time Gold Glove Award winner during his 13-year major league career. Three of those Gold Gloves came during his five seasons with the Cardinals from 2000 until 2004. Over that span, Matheny played 622 games for the Cardinals, developing a reputation as a man whose toughness and leadership could lead to a future as a big-league manager.

“I kept hearing that throughout my career,” Matheny said. “It was pretty consistent that people saw things that would lead me to this position, and pretty soon I began to embrace it.” [3]

Under managers like La Russa in St. Louis and Felipe Alou in San Francisco, Matheny made a conscious effort to question them to understand the countless choices they made over the course of each game.

“I told them, ‘I don’t want to second-guess you, but let’s talk about that decision,’” he said. “I told them, ‘I want to learn.’”[4]

Matheny retired in 2006 at age 35 after concussions limited him to 47 games that season. In 2009, Mozeliak convinced him to return to the Cardinals as a roving instructor and consultant. The role allowed Matheny to familiarize himself with the Cardinals’ minor league talent, and led to additional work as a special assistant to player development and even work as a TV analyst. [5]

In announcing Matheny’s hire, Mozeliak said that Matheny established himself as the leading candidate with his interview on November 4. [6]

“He understands our philosophies, he understands our (minor-league) talent level, and he also has a great understanding of our talent at the major-league level so there’s no learning curve there,” Mozeliak said. “The key thing for him will be the adaptation level in the dugout. But all those other things? You can make the check marks. We chose someone we respect, admire, and want to hear from. This was not an easy job to fill, but in the end, he was the right person at the right time.”[7]

La Russa had informed Mozeliak of his retirement in August, though he didn’t tell his players until after the team’s World Series parade. Upon learning of La Russa’s plans, Mozeliak said he began to develop a list that included as many as 35 names. In addition to Matheny, the Cardinals interviewed Terry Francona, who led the Red Sox to World Series titles in 2004 and 2007; Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo; Phillies minor league manager and former Cubs star Ryne Sandberg; Memphis Redbirds manager Chris Maloney; and White Sox coach and former Cardinal Joe McEwing. [8]

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 15, 2011

“I think a lot of people would have said the simpler choice would have been to go with someone with experience,” Mozeiak said. “We looked at this as someone who could have short-term success with this current club but also someone we believe in for long-term success. When we tried to balance that we really felt comfortable with Mike taking over.”[9]

The decision was a popular one in the Cardinals clubhouse.

“I consider him a friend, and a lot of guys feel that way,” pitcher Kyle McClellan said. “He has so much respect already that guys reach out to him for advice, trust his opinion, and I think that’s why it’s going to work. He’s told me things I didn’t want to hear before. That’s part of it. … A lot of us have wanted to mold ourselves after him, and now he’s our manager. He’s the leader of our team. How could it be better?”[10]

Adam Wainwright, who made his major-league debut in 2005, Matheny’s first season in San Francisco, said, “Here’s this great guy, fun to be around, as we all know, but he can be intense when he needs to be. He’s one of those friends who has authority. If he needs to get in your face, we’ve all seen him do that too.”[11]

“I thought this might happen someday,” Matt Holliday said. “The presence that Mike brings is obvious. The way they talked about him. He brings qualities that are more important than managing experience. He’s a guy who people will follow. … I don’t think he’s going to be overwhelmed. He’s been looking at the game like a manager does his entire career. Mike has been preparing himself for this day, just in a different way.”[12]

La Russa also approved of the hire.

“They made a terrific choice,” he said. “I’m at such peace with turning the page. You needed a fresh look there. It’s time for the organization to have a different appeal to it. I’m wishing it well. They’ve got a real good club with real good leadership.”[13]

In Matheny’s first season at the helm, he guided the Cardinals to 88 wins and a second-place finish in the National League Central. In the playoffs, the Cardinals beat the Braves in the new one-game wild card, then topped the Nationals in a five-game NLDS before falling to the Giants in Game 7 of the NLCS.

The following season was even better as the Cardinals won 97 games and advanced to the World Series, where they fell to the Red Sox in six games. After a 90-win 2014 campaign in which the Cardinals reached the NLCS again, the Cardinals won 100 games in 2015, though they lost to the Cubs in the NLDS.

In 2016, the Cardinals slipped to 86-76, and the day after the Cubs won the World Series, the team announced that it had awarded Matheny a three-year contract extension. He never got the opportunity to complete that contract.

In 2017, the Cardinals fell to third place in the NL Central with an 83-79 mark. After the team got off to a 47-46 start in 2018 and weathered a series of clubhouse controversies, the Cardinals fired Matheny one game before the all-star break and named Mike Shildt the interim manager.

“I don’t feel like our trend line was taking us in that (positive) direction anymore,” Mozeliak said. “Even if it’s just slowly decaying, you’re going to wake up at some point and find yourself in a bad spot. You could say, ‘You’re already there, chief.’ The point is, we felt we couldn’t wait any longer.”[14]

SI.com’s Emma Baccellieri described the move as unsurprising.

The last few weeks have brought several reports that can be read most charitably as unflattering to the manager and most critically as signs that he’s losing the clubhouse. First, there was the news of Matheny’s breakdown in communication with outfielder Dexter Fowler. Then, The Athletic published a report on veteran Bud Norris “mercilessly riding” rookie Jordan Hicks.

When asked if he thought that the youngster might eventually appreciate the harsh treatment from his teammate, Matheny replied, “Probably not. But Bud’s going to continue to do what he thinks is right as a veteran, so you respect that.”

A few decades ago, that answer would have been completely unremarkable from a manager—but not so much anymore, not in a game that banned rookie bullying and hazing in its most recent collective bargaining agreement.[15]

Matheny’s tenure as Cardinals manager resulted in four playoff appearances and one National League pennant in six full seasons. In each season, the Cardinals posted a winning record, and even had a winning mark at the time of his firing. His 591-474 record gave him a .555 winning percentage and placed him behind only La Russa (1,408), Red Schoendienst (1,041), Whitey Herzog (822), and Billy Southworth (620) in Cardinals managerial wins.

Nonetheless, despite 6 ½ seasons as manager, Matheny’s bullpen management and reluctance to embrace defensive shifts left questions regarding his on-field strategies. As Baccellieri wrote:

It doesn’t seem ridiculous to wonder how much of his winning record has come despite his on-field decisions, rather than because of them. … There is, of course, far more to managing than on-field tactics. But the recent reports don’t seem to indicate that he’s done much to establish a stellar clubhouse environment lately, either. Combine that with Matheny’s lack of tactical genius, and the team’s decision to cut him loose looks clear.[16]

Following the 2019 season, the Royals named Matheny their manager. In the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, he led the team to a 26-34 record, and followed that up with a 74-88 record in 2021.


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[1] Bryan Burwell, “Matheny’s moves all look good on his opening day,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 15, 2011.

[2] Joe Strauss, “Matheny’s hiring shows the Cardinals’ priorities,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 15, 2011.

[3] Bryan Burwell, “Matheny’s moves all look good on his opening day,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 15, 2011.

[4] Bryan Burwell, “Matheny’s moves all look good on his opening day,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 15, 2011.

[5] Joe Strauss, “Matheny’s hiring shows the Cardinals’ priorities,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 15, 2011.

[6] Joe Strauss, “Matheny’s hiring shows the Cardinals’ priorities,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 15, 2011.

[7] Bryan Burwell, “Matheny’s moves all look good on his opening day,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 15, 2011.

[8] Joe Strauss, “Matheny’s hiring shows the Cardinals’ priorities,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 15, 2011.

[9] Joe Strauss, “Matheny’s hiring shows the Cardinals’ priorities,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 15, 2011.

[10] Derrick Goold, “New manager is close to many of the players,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 15, 2011.

[11] Derrick Goold, “New manager is close to many of the players,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 15, 2011.

[12] Derrick Goold, “New manager is close to many of the players,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 15, 2011.

[13] Joe Strauss, “Matheny steps into spotlight in Cards’ camp,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 17, 2012.

[14] Derrick Goold, “Mozeliak says firings were inevitable with team faltering,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 16, 2018.

[15] Emma Baccellieri, “Poor On-Field Decisions, Clubhouse Issues Led Cardinals to Change Course From Mike Matheny,” SI.com, https://www.si.com/mlb/2018/07/15/cardinals-fire-mike-matheny-tactical-errors-clubhouse.

[16] Emma Baccellieri, “Poor On-Field Decisions, Clubhouse Issues Led Cardinals to Change Course From Mike Matheny,” SI.com, https://www.si.com/mlb/2018/07/15/cardinals-fire-mike-matheny-tactical-errors-clubhouse.

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