The St. Louis Cardinals are on the brink of making a World Series appearance, again.
Although the Cardinals lost 6-4 yesterday to the Los Angeles Dodgers and are headed back to St. Louis with a slim 3-2 series lead in the NLCS, the Cardinals have found themselves in same position as last season; one win away from a trip to the World Series.
When the 2013 MLB season started, few experts predicted the Cardinals would be back in World Series contention, with good reason too.
Hitting coach Mark McGwire decided not to return to the team, first baseman Lance Berkman left during free agency, and the Cardinals traded starting second baseman Skip Schumaker to the Dodgers for a minor league prospect. Safe to say, the Cardinals chancing of returning to the playoffs was high, but their chances at a World Series run, highly unlikely.
As improbable of a run as it may seem, when one really takes a closer look at this team from inside-and-out, the Cardinals success makes perfect sense.
Every great team is built around the identity of their coach or manager. The great Chicago Bulls teams were as much a product of Phil Jackson’s triangle offense as they were the benefactor of having Michael Jordan on the court. The legendary Green Bay Packers teams of the 60’s were molded with the identity of the great Vince Lombardi, not just the quarterback play of Bart Starr.
Although most baseball experts did not correctly predict to the Cardinals playoff run, it only seems right considering the man who calls the shots for the Cardinals, manager Mike Matheny, has had just an interesting of a journey as the team he leads into battle.
When Tony La Russa retired after the Cardinals 2011 World Series win, La Russa’s resume was stacked sky high. He finished his managerial career with the third most wins of any manager in baseball history (2,728). With the 5,097 games under his belt as a major league manager, La Russa retired as one of only two coaches or managers in American sports history to coach in 5,000 games.
When La Russa decided to hang it up after the 2011 season, the Cardinals had a handful of big names to choose from. Terry Francona had just resigned, Ryan Sandberg was on the hot-list of many teams in need of a manager, and even Bobby Valentine was a wanted man (we all know how that ended).
No. No. No.
Instead, the Cardinals picked a guy who had never managed a professional baseball game in his life, let alone won one. On November 14, 2011, Mike Matheny was named Tony La Russa’s successor as manager of the Cardinals. Although Matheny’s name was familiar to many Cardinals fans, he was a largely unknown to the rest of the baseball world.
Matheny grew up in beautiful Columbus, Ohio. He starred as an all-state baseball player at Reynoldsburg High School. He went on to play college baseball at Michigan, and was eventually drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 8th round of the 1991 MLB draft. After spending three years in the minors, Matheny was called up to the majors in 1994, and became the Brewers starting catcher in 1995.
After a few mediocre years with the Brewers, and a stint with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1999, Matheny ended up in St. Louis. Coming out of spring training, Matheny barely made the Cardinals opening day roster for the 2000 season. But even with the odds against him, Matheny was able to earn the starting catcher position, and he went on to have the best season of his career. He batted a career high .261, but more importantly, he was an exceptional defensive catcher who had .993 fielding percentage and threw out 53% of attempted base stealers. For his great defensive play, Matheny was awarded the Gold Glove after the 2000 season, and would go on to win three more Gold Gloves during his tenure as a Cardinal.
Matheny parted ways with the Cardinals after the 2004 season, and would spend his last two years in the majors with the San Francisco Giants, calling it a quits after the 2006 season due to his post-concussion syndrome.
After a few years away from the game, Matheny was thrust back into the middle of the spotlight when after being named La Russa’s successor.
In some ways, Matheny’s hire didn’t make much sense. A former player who had never coached before at any professional level? Why? How can you replace a legend with a guy you basically just found off the street?
But in many ways, Matheny’s hire made perfect sense. Even as defending World Series champions, the Cardinals motto during the 2012 season might as well have been, “underdog,” something Matheny knew all too well from his playing days.
During the 2011 off-season, not only did the Cardinals lose their hall-of-fame manager in La Russa, but they also had to cope with the loss of all-star slugger and first baseman Albert Pujols, who chose to sign a massive 10-year $240 million contract with the Los Angeles Angles of Anaheim. How’s that working out now Anaheim? Ya, that’s what I thought.
In his first season as manager, Matheny led the Cardinals to an 88-74 record, clinching a spot in the newly formed wild card playoff game. The Cardinals won the play-in game, and miraculously made a run all the way to the NLCS where they took a commanding 3-1 lead against the San Francisco Giants. Unfortunately, the Cardinals were unable to hold on to their lead, losing three straight games to the Giants, who eventually went on to win the World Series.
This season, Matheny has been a leading force in propelling the Cardinals run back to the NLCS where they are within a game of reaching the World Series, again.
The Cardinals are a product of their manager. Like great coaches of the past, this team is a spitting image of the man who calls the shots. A team consisting of few big name stars, the Cardinals quietly went about their business this season. With good pitching, good defense, and timely hitting, the Cardinals went on to win the NL Central, and now stand at the peak of the mountain with their 3-2 lead against the heavily favored Dodgers.
After yesterday’s debacle, people are beginning to have nightmares of last year’s collapse.
In most cases, I would agree that panic mode should be setting in. But something tells me that Matheny and the boys have this one under control.
Matheny has been an underdog his entire career, so one has to think that after watching his team throw away a 3-1 lead last year, he won’t let his Cardinals make the same mistake again.
I have the great respect for Mike Matheny, and I will most certainly have a smile on my face should the Cardinals take care of business and move on to the World Series.
The first time the name Mike Matheny entered my mind was during a family party I attended this past summer. One of the guys at the party mentioned that he had played high school baseball with Matheny back in the day. As a Columbus bread kid on a mission to make my name known throughout the world, I’m happy to know that there are people out there who carry the Columbus flag with such charisma and pride. Being from a Columbus, Ohio has certainly made me the person I am today, and I hope the same goes for Matheny too.
Regardless of my thoughts on Matheny, he still has a job to do. When he and the Cardinals take on the Dodgers in Game 6 tomorrow, the world will be watching to see if his team folds again like they did a year ago.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about my fellow citizens of Columbus, it’s the fact that they even when the pressure is at its peak, we always seem to keep our cool.
Maybe it’s just the Columbus kid inside me, but something tells me that Matheny won’t allow his Cardinals to let this opportunity slip away, again.