Another (Apparent) Conflagration in the Cardinals Clubhouse

Another week, another peek behind the curtain at the men that make up the St. Louis Cardinals.  And again, it’s not necessarily a look that we wanted to see.

As the Dexter Fowler fire starts to burn itself out (Derrick Goold discussed this in his chat this week and there are some interesting thoughts there that Allen and I might get into on Meet Me at Musial tomorrow night, but we’ve done enough talking about it), Mark Saxon lit the fuse on another one yesterday, writing a story in The Athletic (subscription required) about the relationship between the back end of the bullpen, Bud Norris and Jordan Hicks.

Even if you’ve not read the story, I imagine you know the basic details, but if not, Norris has taken it upon himself to make sure Hicks reaches his potential by keeping him focused on being a professional.  Of course, that might be a gentle way of putting it.  The harsher way is that Norris is bullying the young, golden arm of the Cardinals in an effort to make sure he learns lessons.  (For a really great writeup of this story and the language involved, I recommend Tanner Puckett’s article over at Viva El Birdos.  It’s long but really gets into how everything is portrayed.)

There’s other parts to this story, but let’s take a look at this portion first.  The problem with Saxon’s story–and again, don’t get me wrong, I like Saxon and think he does a fine job, so any flaws probably have reasons–is that there are not any examples of this mentoring/bullying behavior listed.  As people, we all have different standards.  What’s unreasonable cruelty to one might be “part of the game” to another.  You might think some actions are excessive where I may think they are necessary for the results that you are looking for.  There are a lot of things that everyone is going to agree are reasonable and a lot of things that everyone is going to agree is way out of bounds.  In the middle, though, is a lot of grey area that folks can disagree on.

As I write this, I see that Jordan Hicks has kinda put that portion of the discussion to rest.  (Sorry, I got caught up in another Last Jedi debate and missed some things.)

It’s interesting that Hicks would come out and say this on Twitter after the story rather than giving Saxon a comment when asked, which would have probably defused this whole thing or at least given a different context to it.  Perhaps Hicks just isn’t much for interviews and maybe this is a rookie mistake in not realizing how his no comment would come off.

(I imagine some will now say Hicks is just trying to paint a “we’re all fine here, everything’s fine” picture but I don’t think there’s any reason he’d take to Twitter like this if it wasn’t honest.  He could have easily ignored it or waited until another media opportunity arose to issue some platitudes.)

What might be more interesting, especially now that Hicks has let out any outrage (or at least most) from the main thrust of the story, is that Matheny has asked Norris to basically police the bullpen.

Though Hicks is the most frequent target of Norris’ attention, he isn’t the only reliever who has sometimes prompted him to speak up. Matheny said he invited Norris to take leadership of the bullpen and he has responded by giving him occasional reports of pitchers not living up to the standards the team set in spring training. At times, Matheny said, he has levied team fines after Norris’ reports.

“I get regular updates,” Matheny said. “But that’s good. I invited him into that. We need leadership with each sub-culture of the team, including the bullpen, and he’s keeping an eye. He’s a stickler for what we established early on.”

Again, I’m not in the clubhouse nor have I ever been a part of such an environment.  I don’t know how things go over or what is considered acceptable  However, on the face of it, having one of your own be the cause of being fined, especially for the young pitchers in the bullpen that don’t have the millions of dollars that Norris does, would seem to be a real challenge to morale.

I get that the Cardinal bullpen is a very young group.  Brett Cecil has been around a while, but he’s only in his second year as a Cardinal.  You had Patron Pitcher of the Blog Tyler Lyons out there when he was healthy, but Lyons, while he’s been in the bigs for portions of different seasons, still hasn’t hit arbitration.  Before signing Norris, the only expected “veteran” out there was to be Luke Gregerson.  Perhaps things would be different if he had been out there, but obviously Gregerson has been injured most of the year.  Then there was Greg Holland, but that’s problematic for a lot of reasons.

So I can see where Matheny might want a veteran to help mold the younger guys and maybe Norris is the only one that really can do that.  However, consider this:

Now, different things work on different people.  Some people need more of a kick in the pants than others do.  However, my general thought is that people are more likely to follow when you show them courtesy and kindness instead of intimidation.  Intimidation is too strong for what Norris is doing, most likely, but having (basically) the power to fine or a lot more leeway to correct would get my back up, for sure.

And to be fair, it’s possible that Norris understands what different players need and isn’t painting with a broad stroke.  Allen mentioned watching Norris talk with Luke Weaver after Weaver was removed from his start against the Giants, perhaps trying to get him to understand why he left after throwing eight good innings when clearly Weaver wanted to get the complete game.

Again, it’s a lot of smoke but trying to find the actual fire in the article is a problem.  Much of it seems disproved by Hicks’s support of Norris.  Could the rest be no big deal as well?  Surely could be.  Probably is, honestly, now that I’ve spent so long rambling about it.

However, this is the second story in a week that doesn’t paint the clubhouse in the best light.  You could also argue it’s the second story that might have been at least softened if not discredited by subsequent reports.  Perhaps it is a flaw of us fans that we immediately believe these stories as true, but given how Matheny has dealt with players in the past, they seem believable, don’t they?  We know there have been strains in his relationships with players.  There’s also evidence that those relationships improved.

Just like the Cardinals this season, all of this work and effort and we’re still back where we started from.  There’s arguments that Matheny’s player management isn’t all that it is cracked up to be and that takes away a big part of what he brings to the table.  There’s arguments that he’s actually communicating and nobody can make all those folks happy all the time.

Until we get some actual incidents or some players willing to talk even off the record with quotes, this seems to be a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  We’ll see if the storm ever comes.

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