When veteran St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa called it quits while World Series ticker tape danced in the air, he created yet another managerial vacancy in what is proving to be an early offseason of considerable change in the manager/Front Office ranks.
Having managerial experience might normally be seen as an essential requirement before filling out the application form and sending in the CV. However, based on the first two appointments of the early offseason, direct experience has been considered irrelevant to the decision-making process.
The Chicago White Sox led the way with the surprise appointment of Robin Ventura. He hasn’t managed or coached at any professional level since retiring as a player in 2004 and even admitted that he was surprised when General Manager Kenny Williams put forward the idea of him taking over from Ozzie Guillen after the outspoken Venezuelan moved on to Miami.
Williams was in no doubt that Ventura was the right man for job, as he made clear when the appointment was announced.
“I wanted someone who met very specific criteria centred around his leadership abilities. Robin Ventura was that man. His baseball knowledge and expertise, his professionalism, his familiarity with the White Sox and Chicago and his outstanding character make him absolutely the right person to lead our clubhouse and this organization into the seasons ahead”.
These sentiments have been replicated following the announcement of Mike Matheny’s appointment as the new Cardinals manager on Monday. General Manager John Mozeliak spoke of Matheny’s “leadership, his passion, his intelligence and his work ethic, all of these assets will lead to his success as manager of the Cardinals”.
Matheny comes to the job in a very similar position to that of Ventura. Both represented their respective team as a player and had advisory roles in their organization. They know what it’s like to be part of their club, they know how the local fanbase and media interacts with their team and, perhaps more importantly than anything, the Front Office knows exactly what they are like as people and leaders.
‘Leadership’ has been the watchword, with the assumption being that former players who can put a big tick in that box will succeed as a manager. There’s good reason to think that this assumption is correct. Much of the day-to-day, decision-making and tactical work that a manager is involved with should already be familiar for players who have been involved in the game for years with their eyes, ears and minds open. By all accounts, Matheny and Ventura were always diligent, intelligent, hardworking players.
Starting from a solid base of baseball knowledge, a large part of a Major League manager’s job is to command the respect of his players. Whether it’s fair or not, a person with considerable managerial experience in the Minor Leagues might struggle to lead his players, especially once the team goes through a bad period of results, if the players see him as a mere Minor Leaguer.
It’s not the case that someone has to have had an impressive playing career to be a successful manager. Tony La Russa had a modest record as a ballplayer and it didn’t hold him back all that much. Still, there’s no doubt that it gives a new manager instant credibility and buys him some time as he develops his managerial reputation.
There will still be pressure on Ventura and Matheny to make the understandable question marks disappear, or at least fade into the background, in their first seasons in charge. That doesn’t mean they need to be wildly successful, not least because even the best manager can only help his team so much. However, they do need to show that the faith being shown in them will be rewarded down the line.
One of the reasons why Ventura’s appointment was such a surprise was that the club had been linked with bringing back La Russa, who managed in Chicago between 1979 and 1986. It’s difficult to think of a starker contrast: a complete rookie as a manager compared to the person third all-time on the MLB managerial wins list.
Williams addressed this point at the time, stating “I don’t expect him to be Tony La Russa on day one, but in our estimation the fit is that it can come together and we will be better off down the line”.
It will be more difficult for the Cardinals to take that approach publicly because Matheny is directly replacing La Russa; his shadow will be there whether they like it or not. Still, Matheny has the goodwill of the team’s recent World Series win – not to mention his own popularity in St. Louis – to help him through.
The White Sox and Cardinals would have been forgiven for appointing an experienced candidate like Terry Francona. Instead, they’ve taken the decision to appoint one of their own and backed them to repay that faith. Now it’s over to Ventura and Matheny to do just that.