By Rob Rains
A belief that the Cardinals were not going to suddenly become the team the ownership and front office thought they had going into the year was what cost manager Mike Matheny and hitting coaches John Mabry and Bill Mueller their jobs.
A desire for a fresh voice, and new leadership, coinciding with the All-Star break, led to the decision to their firings late Saturday night.
Team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said at a news conference on Sunday that the blame for the Cardinals’ performance so far this season – standing one game above .500 before Sunday’s game – was not the fault of Matheny and the two coaches, but they became the victims of the overall performance of the team.
It did not help their job status that the Cardinals had failed to qualify for the playoffs the last two years, even though they did have a winning record. They went into Sunday’s game seven games behind the Cubs in the NL Central Division.
“Some places winning is just having a winning record or even .500 is acceptable, players have a nice season, go home and go back to their families – but not in this city,” DeWitt said. “Not with this franchise and not with this history and not with our great fans.
“We believe in this team, we believe in the talent … we think this is a new start and an opportunity to do a whole lot better.”
The team named Mike Shildt, who had been the bench coach, as the interim manager with the expectation that he will run the team the rest of this season and become a candidate for the full-time position, depending on how the rest of the season goes.
The team also could look outside the organization for a new manager, with former Cubs and Yankees manager Joe Girardi among like expected to be considered.
Shildt has eight years of experience managing in the minor leagues, working with many of the players on the current roster, and was in his second season on the major-league coaching staff.
Mozeliak said the team will promote Memphis hitting coach Mark Budaska and minor league roving instructor George Greer to the major-league staff.
Matheny, Mabry and Mueller were told of the decision following the rain-delayed 8-2 loss to the Reds on Saturday night, but Mozeliak said the decision to make the changes had already been made before the game.
Both DeWitt and Mozeliak talked Sunday about how frustrated they were with the team’s performance this season, when a lack of offense, poor defense and frequent breakdowns in the bullpen all contributed to what was finally viewed as unacceptable results.
“We were always hoping to see if we could get on track,” Mozeliak said. “It felt like two steps forward, two steps back. We just never got there. Trying to do something different is what we’re trying to do today.”
It’s the first time the Cardinals have fired a manager during the season since Joe Torre was dismissed in 1995, shortly before DeWitt’s group purchased the team from Anheuser Busch.
“Bill has always pushed us to win,” Mozeliak said. “Winning is something that we are chasing. The playoffs are something we’re chasing.
“Sometimes when you are on that treadmill of life and you don’t feel like you are actually getting anywhere it might be a time for a change in messaging, or the voice … We (Mozeliak, DeWitt and general manager Mike Girsch) just felt we were not going where we needed to go. There’s always a lot of responsibility for that. All of us share in that responsibility. It’s not solely Mike Matheny or John Mabry. The fact is you have to do something different. We hope these are the right moves.”
Said DeWitt, “The manager doesn’t play the games. The players are playing the games. To sort of pin it on the manager is unfair. … It’s really that I feel we haven’t played to our capabilities more than anything. It just felt like every time we won a couple of games we thought we were going to get over the hump and then we’d fall back.
“As much as we thought we could and were hoping, it just didn’t seem to be happening and this was a logical time to make a change.”
The Cardinals begin the second half of the season on Thursday with a five-game series in four days in Chicago against the Cubs.
“We feel this team has a chance to win,” Mozeliak said. “We believe the talent in the clubhouse is capable of being successful. We’re going to take this opportunity, and that’s the reason we’re doing it now and not waiting. We want to find a way to salvage this season and we think there’s a chance to do that.”
Several of the team’s under-performing players – such as Dexter Fowler, Marcell Ozuna and Tommy Pham – will have to improve their performance for that likely to happen.
“It’s an opportunity I’m excited for and I’m ready for,” said Shildt, a disciple of long-time Cardinals’ minor league leader George Kissell. “The biggest thing is about being more consistent and appreciating what we do well. We’re going to think about how we attack that strategically.”
Shldt, 49, is one of a few coaches or managers in the major leagues who never played professional baseball. He played in college, when he discovered he suffered from the same eye condition as Pham. Shildt is a former teacher and also worked as a scout and coach before becoming a minor-league manager, where he won three league titles in his eight seasons.
Shildt grew up around baseball, where he worked in a variety of roles including being a clubhouse attendant and running the scoreboard the team in his hometown of Charlotte, N.C. His mother worked in the team’s front office.
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