The changing of the managerial guard for the St. Louis Cardinals had not occurred in the last decade and a half and of course, never on the watch of general manager John Mozeliak.
That officially changed on October 31, following the club’s World Series celebration parade. Tony La Russa, the 16-year skipper of the Cardinals, stunned supporters of the team and the baseball world as a whole when he announced his retirement.
Mozeliak was not afforded a moment’s rest to smell the roses. Once the news was released externally, the decision, known by club executives since August, led to a two-week public search for the right man to try to fill La Russa’s shoes.
Many were likely considered for the managerial opening, though only six apparently received formal interviews. They were eventual winner Mike Matheny, third base coach Jose Oquendo, Triple-A Memphis manager Chris Maloney, Phillies Triple-A manager Ryne Sandberg, White Sox third base coach Joe McEwing and former Boston and Philadelphia manager Terry Francona. Of the six, only Francona had managed in the majors previously.
Matheny, 41, was a surprising choice to many. He had been a special assistant to Mozeliak and an organizational catching instructor, but had no prior professional managerial experience.
Then again, was it really that surprising? After years of dealing with the strong-willed La Russa, who could cause headaches at times with his fiery demeanor, perhaps the Cardinals were looking for a different kind of personality.
Matheny had seemed like a longshot from a personal perspective as well as from the lack of experience angle. He previously expressed disinterest in taking a traditional coaching assignment that would keep him away from home and family. However, with his oldest children approaching college and perhaps with some personal financial setbacks contributing to his decision-making process, Matheny agreed to take the on-field reins of the Cardinals.
A 13-year major league veteran and four-time Gold Glove Award winner, Matheny was a strong leader and a very popular player with St. Louis from 2000-04. With Yadier Molina then ready to take over behind the plate, Matheny moved to San Francisco as a free agent. He was forced into early retirement in 2006 due to the effects of post-concussion syndrome.
To manage the Cardinals, Matheny received a two-year contract with a club option for 2014. A number of familiar faces will be among his coaches. Incumbent pitching guru Dave Duncan will remain for the final year of his own two-year contract.
Two of the men that competed against Matheny for the top job were announced as members of his staff. Oquendo will stay as third base coach while Maloney is the new first base coach. The latter replaces long-time La Russa staffer Dave McKay, since named to the same job for the Chicago Cubs.
Hitting coach Mark McGwire remains in his same role in 2012. Assistant hitting coach Mike Aldrete was promoted to bench coach, Joe Pettini’s former assignment. Former Cardinals first baseman John Mabry takes Aldrete’s old job.
Bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist returns for his second season in the role. He will be joined by a new bullpen catcher in Jamie Pogue. Previous bullpen catcher Jeff Murphy was not retained.
For so many reasons, the choice of Matheny and his staff has signaled the beginning of a new era in Cardinals baseball. Where it will lead remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure. The epicenter of organizational power has shifted from La Russa to Mozeliak, the man who engineered these changes. As such, Matheny’s job performance may become a major element of his boss’ career legacy as well.