When he was hired before the 2012 season, Mike Matheny had zero professional managerial experience. That shift from the man who previously filled the role couldn’t have been more pronounced; Matheny replaced a manager in Tony La Russa who had been at it for 34 seasons, and who held as much influence on the organization as anybody, John Mozeliak included.
As anyone would in a brand new job, Matheny learned as he went along. He continues learning even now as he prepares for his sixth season as Cardinals skipper. Matheny’s perceived sluggish development as a major league manager has frustrated those who consider him too stubborn to make adjustments required of the position. Though the expectation exists among the fan base that he should be far more proficient in his profession after five years of experience, Matheny showed progress this past season in ways he previously had not. 2017 could bring more changes to Matheny’s managerial philosophy, as – for better or worse – the clubhouse dynamic is about to change.
That’s where Dexter Fowler comes in. The newest Cardinal put his infectious personality on display right away in his introductory press conference Friday, indicating his priorities as a ballplayer extend beyond just winning games.
“I feel like if I go in a clubhouse, we’re gonna have fun,” Fowler said. “Even if the clubhouse is not having fun, we’re going to have fun. Win, lose, or draw. Let’s have fun because I believe that’s going to make us better. I feel like I can do that in a clubhouse. Either way, we’ll get the guys out of their shell if they are in the shell.”
Don’t get it twisted: Fowler also cited his belief that the Cardinals have the talent to contend for a World Series as a major reason for signing with St. Louis. After winning a title with the Cubs this past year, Fowler is unquestionably hungry for another. Beyond his desire to win, though, Fowler values enjoyment of the game – a mindset he’ll quickly thrust upon his new team.
That’s not to say the Cardinals didn’t enjoy playing baseball last year; Jedd Gyorko and Brandon Moss seemed to have a good enough time together, anyway. But every clubhouse is different. As the Cardinals sought to woo free agents over the past few weeks, the idea that their environment was a turn-off permeated the periphery of the hot stove.
Players – namely Fowler – reportedly didn’t want to come here. Some leapt to the assumption that Matheny’s stodgy leadership approach was the culprit deterring the team’s ability to attract premium free agents.
Whatever reservations Fowler may have had – whatever previous St. Louis emigrant Jason Heyward did or did not share with him about life as a Cardinal – it wasn’t enough to keep him away. The Cardinals landed their guy in the end.
The most fascinating element of the signing is that Fowler – rumored to be less-than enthused regarding the state of the Cardinal clubhouse – is the man most capable of changing it.
For the entirety of Matheny’s tenure as Cardinals manager, Matt Holliday’s presence has paced the identity of the club. To suggest that a departure from such a circumstance could benefit St. Louis is not meant as an indictment on Holliday or his leadership. Rather, Holliday’s exit should be viewed as an opportunity for Matheny to grow.
Holliday’s influence over the Cardinal clubhouse has been described as a quiet dominion; while his methods conceivably included more intricate interactions behind closed doors, most of what the public saw was an understated, businesslike guidance by the veteran outfielder.
While debates of his legacy may persist – Derrick Goold shed light on the scope of his commitment to the community – Holliday’s status as a dominant figure over clubhouse culture during the Matheny years is undisputed.
The tone set by Holliday and other veteran leaders might not have suited everybody, but it’s hard to argue with the results it inspired: No team has won as many games as the Cardinals since Matheny took the reins.
Change comes eventually. Following a two-year stint with the freewheeling Cubs, Fowler’s arrival offers the Cardinals a timely occasion to transition. Fowler radiates fun. No intimidation, no anxiety. No matter who it is, Fowler can form a personal connection. While last year’s Cardinals were tight-knit within their individual cliques, Fowler has the charisma to bridge gaps between teammates on a refreshed roster.
And Mike Matheny should let him. Even more, he should welcome and encourage Fowler’s installation into a leadership role. Through five years as a big league manager, Matheny has adapted his leadership to reflect the temperament of his clubhouse. In Fowler, Matheny has a player with enough personality to establish a revamped attitude for the whole team.
Matheny might be more comfortable in a buttoned-up atmosphere, but that doesn’t mean he’s fundamentally opposed to a lighter clubhouse. Veteran leadership has just typically lent itself to a more stern environment in the past. That's okay, and it worked quite well for a while.
But budding ace Carlos Martinez splashes teammates with water after home runs and builds cup towers in the dugout. Fiery infielder Kolten Wong dances and roars with emotion after big plays. Enter Fowler, a veteran leader with effervescence to burn, ready to help his new team return to the postseason.
By being himself, Dexter Fowler invites a new camaraderie – perhaps compelling his manager to lighten up a bit along the way.
Copyright 2016 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.