I’ll preface this blog post with a disclaimer: I’m not a baseball guy. But I am a leadership guy, and there’s a really interesting story going on with the St. Louis baseball Cardinals right now.
The Cardinals, one of the winningest franchises in Major League Baseball history, fired manager Mike Matheny on July 14th in the middle of his seventh season as the team’s leader. The Cardinals were a mediocre 47-46 at the time of Matheny’s dismissal, and the team has failed to qualify for postseason play the last two years.
However, since Matheny was replaced by Mike Shildt, a longtime Cardinals employee and manager at all three levels of the Cardinals farm system, the team has gone 24-11 and a league-best 17-4 in August.
To say the Cardinals are hot would be an understatement. The team is ridiculously confident, playing with incredible energy, and they’re really having fun. The players joke that their recent success can be attributed to Matt Carpenter, the league’s home run leader, providing his homemade salsa for the team each day. In fact, when the Cardinals hit a home run, you’re likely to see players pantomiming an action of eating salsa with a spoon.
Carpenter has taken the idea and run with it, producing t-shirts with the line “It’s Gotta Be the Salsa,” and donating a portion of the sales to a St. Louis children’s hospital.
So, the hot streak? It’s all about the salsa.
But of course, it’s not. It’s about how Mike Shildt has reinvigorated the team by changing the clubhouse culture. Shildt has breathed new life into the Cardinals, and from what I’ve read, he’s a perfect fit for the job. He has deep roots in the organization, personifies “the Cardinal Way” work ethic, has developed relationships with many players at different levels of the farm system. Plus, he is spooky smart.
Shildt has also spent his career avoiding the three strikes that appear to have sent Matheny to the exit:
- Limit Communication – During Matheny’s tenure, media reports sometimes identified players who were in the manager’s “doghouse.” Being in the doghouse meant that there were times when players got the cold shoulder from the manager and there was minimal dialogue between the player and manager. Matheny also took some heat for allowing one veteran player to be a chronic jerk toward a young relief pitcher in order to toughen him up. The same vet also served the role of a clubhouse snitch, reporting back to Matheny on players who didn’t abide by standards that the manager established during spring training.
When head games are commonplace and communication is sparse, it fosters mistrust, disloyalty, animosity and a lack of respect for the leadership. That approach may have worked during the 1980’s and 90’s, but it should have been laid to rest by now.
Also, when Matheny was quizzed by reporters about game strategy, the media consensus was that his behavior was frequently defensive and his responses could be brief and sanctimonious. Part of a big-league manager’s responsibilities includes daily interaction with the press, so being confident (and transparent) about in-game decisions is crucial to having a good relationship with the media.
Players say the difference with Shildt as the manager is like night and day. Mild mannered and genuine, Shildt has captured the clubhouse in a short period. As Carpenter said, “He (Shildt) cares about our guys, and he has a good feel for what we’re trying to do as a team.”
- Sidestep Tough Issues– On occasion, whether intentional or not, the manager provided details to the media that served to make a Cardinals player look bad. The speculation was that Matheny used the media to reprimand a star player rather than have an uncomfortable conversation about a lack of hustle. Play that includes failing to run out a ground ball or making a mental mistake on the field should not be accepted by a manager. But how the boss handles it demonstrates what type of leader he is, and by not holding everyone to the same standard, a manager can undermine the entire team.
Media reports indicate that because of Shildt’s rapport with the Cardinals players, he appeals to their professionalism to address any issues. And when a reporter challenges Shildt’s game decisions, he doesn’t avoid the question, he runs to it.
- Cling to Old School– Just because something worked once doesn’t mean it will work again. Like every other business, baseball has changed. Advanced metrics provide invaluable insight into today’s Major League Baseball. Not embracing analytics (and building a strong analytics department to gain a tactical or personnel edge) is like continually dropping infield pop-ups. Reports are that Matheny managed the way his predecessors did in the 90’s and never fully embraced ownership’s commitment to advanced metrics. On the other hand, Shildt is an advance metrics enthusiast.
Warm and personable, and intellectually curious (and fearless), new manager Mike Shildt has the Redbirds rolling. But if the Cardinals fall short of the playoffs this season, it won’t be because of the manager.
It’s gotta be the salsa.