Vahe Gregorian

Why new Royals manager Mike Matheny deserves the benefit of the doubt from KC fans

Shortly after the St. Louis Cardinals had lost their sixth straight home game and fallen to 47-46 in 2018, they fired Mike Matheny despite considerable currency and credibility that included guiding them to three straight National League Central titles and a 591-474 record in his six-plus seasons.

Whatever cushion or slack that ledger might have earned Matheny was offset by a prevailing wave succinctly summed up by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “Matheny’s dismissal comes at the end of a turbulent week for the Cardinals that featured questions about his communication with players, a tense clubhouse, in-house criticisms about the team’s energy level, and familiar losses that teetered from concerning to chronic.”

The decision and stigma attached to the circumstances knocked the wind out of Matheny, he said Thursday. But they ultimately left him contemplating something else.

“I don’t think you can ever trust a leader without a limp,” he said after being introduced as the Royals’ next manager.

Loosely translated, Matheny, 49, seems to believe and certainly conveys that he has prospered by the experience and is more equipped for all facets of the work now.

Not simply in the sense he didn’t take for granted the “rare and fleeting” prospect of getting another managerial job and treasures his new job as “a privilege and a trust.”

But because in the intervening span, he embraced the chance for self-evaluation and exploring what he called his “blind spots” with, among, others, general manager Dayton Moore.

“So I don’t make the same mistakes twice,” he said, “whether it’s tactically or whether it’s relational.”

How that apparent makeover will translate to his transition from one of baseball’s most storied franchise and a perennial contender to one coming off back-to-back 100-plus-loss seasons and dependent on cultivating young talent remains to be seen and has been, uh, questioned on social media.

But how about we extend the benefit of the doubt to general manager Dayton Moore and incoming owner John Sherman? No one has more invested in their vetting than they do.

And let’s extend the benefit of the doubt for a man with some sterling credentials and outstanding baseball acumen who spent the last year in a virtual self-improvement incubator as a Royals’ special adviser, a man who took it upon himself to take leadership courses and dip deeper into analytics and work with a media consultant.

You can’t get better, he said, “If I don’t go find somebody that knows more about this than I do.”

While he said that explicitly about the media consultant, it also was a recurring theme as Matheny spoke of time in the organization over the last year with everyone from exuberant coach Rusty Kuntz to scouts and coaches and training staff and analytics personnel, and what Moore suggested was the gamut of the entire operation.

That wasn’t as observable Thursday, though, as was simply seeing Matheny engage. And for what it’s worth, he was relaxed and candid and funny in a post-news conference side session with several writers who cover the team regularly.

More notably, it seemed to come quickly and naturally, as if he were letting down the gates to his true personality instead of creating a mask.

Just the same, he acknowledged being advised just to smile more.

“I guess it’s easier here today,” he said before quickly adding, “I’ve got more joy, I think, than anybody you know. I truly believe that.”

He often defaulted to a more grim demeanor in his first managerial job, saying he’d learned a certain stoicism from some managers he’d played for and felt like displaying too much emotion might give an opponent an edge one way or another.

“And I think the other side of that is I was afraid I’d miss something: I’ve always been a grinder. And I don’t know how to smile my way through grinding,” he said, before joking that he felt a sudden need to lie down on the couch while he spoke.

Matheny spoke interchangeably in generalities about that persona, several times entwining his dealings with players and the media in one. There often was a tension, he said, “most of it self-created” that he knew “created a rigid facade.”

No doubt complicated dynamics remain ahead when it comes to an intense man who said he received about 400 text messages of support after being fired amid multiple Cardinals complaining about an environment that left them off-balance.

There will always be friction to deal with, he said, always fires to be put out in the clubhouse. And there will always be complexities in balancing nurturing, patience and urgency for players to perform.

“You want them living in that tension” to perform, he said, though qualifying that by saying, “It comes back to trying to build trust. And it’s easier sometimes than others.”

For that matter, he said, “There’s a fight in me, too, that I can’t get rid of.”

But it’s a spirit that by all indications he’s willing to try to harness and direct in a fresh way as someone who believes one of his greatest gifts is how much he cares about people and relationships.

And if we can’t believe in growth and new beginnings and learning and development, at least unless proven otherwise, geez, what’s life all about, anyway?

In his opening remarks, Moore said the organization went into the managerial search “with a completely open mind.”

We should, too. It was only a glance at Matheny, but you also never get a second chance to make a first impression on a new job.

And the impression he left was that he’s better off for how it ended in St. Louis. Because he looked in the mirror and thought he could grow.

“I can’t wait to get in and get started and people (can) see if it’s real or not,” he said. “I mean, you guys are going to be able to call it out fast. You know people, you read people, you see this stuff every single day.”

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.