Many people thought Cards baseball would never be the same when legendary Tony LaRussa announced his retirement after leading the Cards to a World Series Title in 2011. In LaRussa’s 16 seasons as the Cards’ manager, his overall record was 1408-1182, and he went to the World Series three times, winning two of them. Known for his subdued attitude on game days and reserved demeanor in interviews, LaRussa was considered the archetype for managers across Major League Baseball. His experience and time spent in the game of baseball was paralleled by few others. So when the Cardinals decided to hire a new, young manager by the name of Mike Matheny instead of other qualified applicants with more coaching experience (namely, Terry Francona and Ryne Sandberg), Cards fans across the nation became somewhat skeptical.
How could Matheny, at just 41 years of age (the youngest MLB manager at the time), ever achieve what LaRussa had? How would he acquire the skills and knowledge required of an MLB manager with practically no prior coaching experience?
Matheny did not worry about these questions; instead, he chose to focus on taking one day at a time and learning as much as he could. Jose Oquendo, who had also applied for the managerial job, stayed on board with the Cards and assisted Matheny in adjusting to his new role. The Cards brought on Matheny’s former teammate, John Mabry, to be the assistant hitting coach to Mark McGwire. Matheny, equipped with a staff that had achieved excellence before, was ready to start creating a legacy of his own.
The 2012 season was a success as the Cards surpassed mediocre expectations by reaching the NLCS. Ahead 3-1 in the series against the San Francisco Giants, Matheny was one game away from reaching the World Series in his first year. Unfortunately, the Giants came back to win the NLCS and would go on to win the World Series. Matheny acknowledged the success of the season, but he was disappointed. The Huffington Post quoted Matheny saying, “It wasn’t how we scripted it to finish, but it was certainly a great run that these guys need to be very proud of.”
Surely that season was just a fluke, right? Matheny will most definitely have a sophomore slump like so many players do.
The 2013 season came with even greater success than in 2012. The Cards finished 97-65 (the best record in the NL) and made it to the World Series. Despite losing to the Boston Red Sox in six games, Matheny was able to show how capable he is of leading a world class organization. Now in 2014, the Cardinals are in first place in the NL Central with less than a month left in the season. Matheny seems to be doing everything right.
But perhaps it is Matheny’s leadership abilities and humble character that make him so right for this job. With no dominant star on the team (except for Yadier Molina or Adam Wainwright, perhaps), Matheny is the face of this franchise. He has ties to this organization that go back to his playing days, and it seems that everyone he has interacted with since then speaks very highly of him. He has not even been a manager in the league for three years, yet he has accomplished what few others have.
Who knows, maybe he will be the next Tony LaRussa. Or more.