Thou Shildt Not Manage

I was scrolling through Facebook right after lunch yesterday when I saw a news story that I was sure was fake.  “Mike Shildt, fired?  Yeah right, whatever, what weird rumor is some fringe group promoting?”  Then I saw it was from Rob Rains at St. Louis Sports Page.  Rob’s a credentialed journalist and has been around a long time, so I was trying to decide if that was really from him when I saw the tweets start coming in about a hastily-called press conference and the confirmation that Mike Shildt was no longer the manager of the Cardinals.

Nothing about this seemed to be in character with the Cardinals.  Shildt had only been on the job 3 1/2 years, a blink of time compared to the eons most Cardinal managers are employed.  Starting with Whitey Herzog in 1980, the Cards had only had five full time managers and of those five, two had left of their own accord.  It wasn’t the Dodgers using just Walter Alston and Tommy LaSorda for 50 years but it was darn close.  Rapid turnover isn’t standard operating procedure here, but Shildt got less games as the head man than Eddie Stanky, whom few beyond Mark Tomasik remember as something more than a funny name.  Granted, it still puts Shildt in 18th overall in games managed, which puts him in the top half of Cardinal managers, but it still was a short run.

And it was a productive run.  Joe Torre got fired after 706 games because the team really wasn’t doing anything and hadn’t been.  Shildt lead the team to a strong second half in 2018 when he took over, 91 wins and a division title in 2019, a playoff spot in the pandemic year of 2020 (a year where he managed to keep everything together despite the team missing two weeks with a COVID outbreak and then all that it took to make up those games), and then a record run this year that got him back into the playoff and this close to knocking off the Dodgers, who after beating the Giants last night are favored for not only another World Series appearance but also a repeat World Series title.  As John Mozeliak said in the press conference, this was about more than wins and losses and they were proud of the results on the field this year.

Ben Fredrickson, in his usual argumentative way, has styled this as a “don’t mess with Mo” situation, full of mafia-like vindictiveness over disagreements, and maybe it was.  Fredrickson makes Mo out to be the swaggering sheriff, slamming down anyone that goes against his orthodoxy.  He’s obviously closer to the situation–I and many others had no idea that there was tension between Shildt and hitting coach Jeff Albert until he asked the question in yesterday’s press conference, perhaps because it had never been written about–but I don’t feel it’s quite that way.  Obviously they wanted everyone at least somewhat on the same page and if that wasn’t going to happen, it wasn’t going to be Mo that changed, but I feel like Mo typically gives some rope in these situations.  It was more than Shildt saying he needs some pitchers.

It’s natural to try to draw some comparisons to the tenure of Mike Matheny.  After all, Matheny got chance after chance before he was let go when there was basically no other option.  You can make the case that the front office learned from that and decided not to go down that route again, which is a laudable thing.  If you can’t learn from a situation like that, you are just doomed to repeat it.

Matheny obviously wasn’t on the same page as Mozeliak quite often.  Every offseason, it seemed like Mo had to tailor the team to address some shortcoming of Matheny, whether it was giving him more options, taking away options so he’d play the right players, or getting him more coaching help.  That doesn’t sound like a front office that demands “my way or the highway” to me, though again it’s possible that they learned from the situation and took a harder line.

It’s also very clear that Mike Matheny had a much, much better relationship with Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt Jr. than Mike Shildt did, which is something I wouldn’t have said at the beginning of the week.  Beyond the fact that the Cardinals waited to the last minute with Matheny and pushed Shildt out so fast they had to get MLB approval so they could do it during the postseason, take a look at the two press releases regarding the dismissals:

Now, to be fair, you can’t judge everything by the length.  If I remember the timeline, the Cards had met the day before and decided to let go of Matheny, so between that and the rain delay in his last game, there was time to craft a release.  The Shildt situation seems like it came out of nowhere for the organization as well.  As someone said on Twitter, it’s possible both Mike Shildt and John Mozeliak woke up yesterday not knowing that Shildt was going to be fired.  The shorter lead time was going to produce less of a release. It would be surprising that they couldn’t get a comment from DeWitt to put in there, but maybe you mark that down to the time.

However, let’s look more closely at the two things that are the same–the quotes from Mozeliak.

Matheny: “These decisions are never easy, but we felt that a change in leadership was necessary as the team prepares for the second half of the season.  I would like to thank Mike for his exceptional commitment and devotion to the Cardinals organization, including many fond memories of our years working together.”

Shildt: “While these decisions are difficult, both parties agreed that philosophical differences related to the direction of the organization brought us to this conclusion.  With just one year remaining on Mike’s contract, it was in everyone’s best interests that we address this now.”

So which one was a Cardinal lifer, a guy that worked his way up through the organization, was a keeper of The Cardinal Way endorsed by George Kissell’s family, a guy that managed in the minors, who had a ton of jobs up and down the ladder, and who was the one that played in St. Louis for five years, did a little roving instructing, then was immediately granted the top job?

The fact that Mo couldn’t even pay a little lip service to Shildt’s time in St. Louis is startling and telling.  It would have been easy to tack on a “we thank Mike for his service to the Cardinal organization over the past almost two decades.”  Even a little “we appreciate what Mike has done but we are going a different direction.”  This is the coldest press release I’ve seen on a situation like this in a while.

Folks are already starting to say this was an Albert vs. Shildt situation and perhaps it was, though Mozeliak noted that any tension between the two was “not the sole reason” for a dismissal.  We’ve talked many times before, both here and on podcasts, about the commitment they’ve made to Jeff Albert.  Whether you like it or not, whether you don’t believe it is panning out or if you think we are starting to see results both at the big league level and at the minor leagues, the Cardinals have put a lot of chips in the Albert basket to bring a consistent hitting philosophy to the organization.  We often say that it’s easier to fire the manager than to fire all the players.  In this case, it may have been easier to fire the manager than to undo all the work that had been done in this area.

And let’s be clear, this was a firing.  Even though the press release says it was a mutual parting of the ways, Mozeliak allowed that Shildt was “shocked” by the phone call, not exactly the response of someone who was thinking that it was time to get out.  Why the Cardinals wanted to style it this way, I don’t know.  Maybe it was one of those TV arguments where Mo said, “Well, if you think like that you should just leave!” and Shildt says, “Well maybe I will!” and then all of the sudden his threat gets taken up on.  It’s a weird detail in a weird situation.

With all the media in town and the focus on baseball in St. Louis, I imagine we’ll get a clearer picture of some things over time, though that time might be all winter or even longer.  We’ll see if Mike Shildt, who I assume was already in North Carolina for his off-season and that’s why he was dismissed via phone call, breaks his silence and gives at least a portion of his story to one of the writers.  We’ll see if any of the players, many of whom found out from media reports, have anything to say about the whole thing.  Right now, it’s hard to tell who you blame.  It doesn’t sound like this was over Alex Reyes, but if it was the difference between Mo saying he’s going to start next year and Shildt saying he’s going to relieve, at least you could pick a side.  Or if it was that Shildt wanted some pricey additions and the front office said we’ve got additions at home, then you could go with one or the other.

All we know right now is that the Cardinals need a new manager.  Odds are great that, unless they were of the same mindset of Mike Shildt or are more loyal to him than we expect, Ollie Marmol or Stubby Clapp will be the 51st manager of the Cardinals.  I argued earlier in the year that the team could use some outside influence and maybe the rumored interest in Skip Schumaker would help that, given that he’s spent some time in other organizations of late, most notably the Padres.  Whoever they go with, it’ll be someone that agrees with the team philosophy and approach going forward, whatever that might be.  It’ll be interesting if one of those two gets it because it could easily look like the same old same old unless they are clear why they are different from the guy that just got let go.

It was the strangest, most out of character, out of the blue news since the Walt Jocketty news from 2007.  Just like then, this well may be a demarcation point, a line in the sand where one faction gets to set the agenda.  Then, it was scouts vs. stats and the Cardinals, while finding some middle ground, leaned toward stats.  What the philosophy battle is here, we may have to wait years to find out.  Hopefully the course set yesterday leads to another glorious era of Cardinal baseball!

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