DENVER—For Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak, finding the replacement for manager Tony La Russa wasn’t about taking the safe route.
Heck, he could have brought in Terry Francona, who had earned his managerial spurs by lifting the Curse of the Bambino in Boston, taking the Red Sox to a World Series championship in 2004, and again three years later.
There was Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, who has been paying his dues filling out lineup cards in the minor leagues. And the popular former Cardinals player and current third-base coach, Jose Oquendo.
But when it came time to replace La Russa, who ranks third on the all-time managerial list in both games won (2,728) and postseason appearances (14), Mozeliak threw the baseball world a curve.
He hired Mike Matheny, a 41-year-old former big league catcher who had been forced by concussions to retire in 2006. In the meantime he had been working with youth teams, and doing some work in the Cardinals farm system helping develop catchers.
“One of the things that had to be considered in hiring the replacement to Tony La Russa is finding someone who understood the culture we developed and how things go down here,” Mozeliak said. “Mike had been part of the organization as a player and an instructor. He had a good relationship with our staff. I just felt he was worth the risk.”
Welcome to the big leagues, Mr. Matheny. Oh, by the way, the man who held the job before you is arguably the best manager in at least the last six decades, a virtual lock to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and led the Cardinals to a World Series championship last October.
So much for challenges.
Making The Grade
When this October rolled around, Matheny and the Cardinals were among the last teams standing. They won the National League Wild Card Game with Atlanta. They rallied to beat Washington in five games in the Division Series, overcoming a 6-0 deficit to pull out a 9-7 win in Game Five, becoming the first team ever to overcome more than a four-run deficit in an elimination game.
They came up short of their goal of repeating as World Series champions, losing to the Giants in a seven-game League Championship Series. But there’s no doubt Matheny passed the managerial entrance exam.
“I know there’s a high level of expectation with this job,” Matheny said. “If I didn’t think I could handle it, I wouldn’t have walked into the interview process.”
He actually sneaked into the interview process.
When La Russa told Mozeliak in mid-August last year that he wasn’t coming back, the GM put together a list of 35 to 40 candidates, which he said didn’t include Matheny.
“I had him in the back of my mind, over to the side,” Mozeliak said. “He was the outlier.”
As he winnowed his list of candidates, Mozeliak threw out Matheny’s name to owner Bill DeWitt, who found the idea intriguing.
Matheny then joined Francona, Sandberg, Oquendo, Cardinals Triple-A manager Chris Maloney and Joe McEwing, a former Cardinals player now a coach with the White Sox, in the interview process.
“When I called him about coming in for the interview, I tried to help him manage the expectations,” Mozeliak said. “I told him it would be a good experience that he could get a feel for what the process is like . . . And then he hit a home run.”
Mozeliak said the decision was a no-brainer once the interviews were completed. There was no hesitation in taking a chance on the unproven commodity, even with a team where success is expected.
“I understood it is a desirable position, but I also understood I wanted a guy who not only could come in and maintain what we have, but someone who would be a part of our long-term future,” Mozeliak said. “A lot of people might have felt they needed to put their own fingerprints on this team, but we felt what we do as an organization, we do well. We wanted someone who could come in and continue what we had and build off that, not feel he had to build something different.”
There was, after all, little fault to find with the legacy left by La Russa, who got his managerial start with the White Sox and became a household name with the Athletics, but who spent 16 of his 33 managerial seasons in St. Louis and managed more games for the Cardinals (2,591) than he did for the White Sox and A’s combined (2,506).
“In the interview process, what stood out was he understood the direction we are trying to go,” said Mozeliak.
And 11 months later, Matheny has only reaffirmed the confidence Mozeliak had in the hire. He took a team that lost Albert Pujols to free agency and didn’t have Chris Carpenter until the final days of the regular season, but never looked for excuses to fail, and always pushed for reasons to succeed.
And when that first season ended, the Cardinals had every reason to be pleased with the end result.