No need for Cardinals to replace icons with replicas
As we approach the beginning of spring training St. Louis Cardinals fans and the media covering the team are beginning to circle back to talk of Albert Pujols, Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan not being with the team this spring. The obvious question to ask is what is the impact of their departure going to mean to the team? There are many answers to this question and each one of them has some validity. Where I tend to disagree most often is when I read that icons are irreplaceable unless the replacement is ready to break into icon status himself. This is a farce, one which the Cardinals have been very adept at not following.
The easy choice, some may say, for replacing Pujols would have been to throw the same load of money toward Prince Fielder. He’s a power hitting, OBP machine, who is also just now at the peak of his prime. Fielder arguably has better years ahead of him than Pujols. But, Cardinals’ general manager John Mozeliak had a plan in place and stuck to his guns. He’ll save that money for when he feels the right player or players come along this year or next. He is in no rush to blow the cash. He is being smart. He is waiting for a player or players with the most upside to hang his hat on. He signed Carlos Beltran to compliment the lineup and that was it. It should be enough.
Teams do not need to replace iconic players with potentially iconic players. In fact, more often than not, no matter how well the next guy performs, the chances he will stay around long enough to attain the icon status is minimal. Free-agency has made it very difficult for players to stick with one team long enough for the fans to think of the player as an icon. Since these players are few and far between as it is, teams do not have much of a guideline as to how to replace an icon.
Who replaced Cal Ripken Jr.? Mike Bordick took his spot at short when Ripken moved to third base. When Ripken retired, Tony Batista took over the hot corner for the Orioles. Was there anyone out there who could truly replace Ripken’s stature in Baltimore? Most likely there wasn’t so why bother trying? The Orioles did what they felt was right. Batista wasn’t going to become an icon in Baltimore, but he did hit 31 HR in 2002, the season after Ripken retired. Can they really complain about that? Despite the good season, I am sure there were grumblings around Camden Yards that season that Batista couldn’t carry Ripken’s jockstrap.
Does the same mentality hold true for replacing iconic managers and pitching coaches? In the Cardinals’ mind again the answer is no. Mike Matheny is a well-liked and maybe even well-loved figure in Cardinals’ history. I wouldn’t suggest he is at the threshold of being an icon. Matheny has never managed a professional baseball game. That is a pretty emphatic answer to the question by Mozeliak. Mo selected a smart, resourceful former catcher to replace the domineering La Russa. He didn’t feel he needed a guy with thousands of managed games under his belt.
Nice work if you ask me. There were many “top-notch” managers out there at the time; Terry Francona and Bobby Valentine to name a couple. Mozeliak didn’t bite. Why pay more money for one of those guys? Would they really get that much more out of the team than Matheny is going to get? I would venture to guess that players are going to find it very easy to fit into Matheny’s way of managing. This does not mean that I believe Matheny is going to be a pushover and the players will run roughshod over him. To the contrary, he will probably be very little like La Russa, and the change will be welcomed in the clubhouse. Matheny is not far removed from his playing days, with this particular franchise, and that will pay dividends. Matheny has the chance to become iconic, but he is far from that stature now and it is not the reason he was hired.
In replacing Dave Duncan, Derek Lilliquist has the hardest shoes to fill in my opinion. But again, the Cardinals stayed focused on what made the most sense for the organization and that was to have the guy who was shadowing Duncan last season take over the role. Will Lilliquist as successful as Duncan? No one knows this now. But, what we do know is that he was successful during his interim status as pitching coach last season. We know he is very knowledgeable of the arms in the organization. We do know that the pitching staff is an incredibly solid one and doesn’t NEED a mentor. If they hadn’t learned from Duncan yet, they never will have. If the current crop of Cardinals pitchers believe in Duncan’s ways (pound the zone and induce ground balls), then Lilliquist is capable of showing them how to continue to do so. Also, there is the mentality that some have about performing in front of a “guru”. Some have nerves to overcome, and feel that won’t live up to “the master’s” expectations. With Lilliquist it is possible some of the staff will become more at ease with him than Duncan. We don’t know, but we will soon see. I’d have to once again point out; the replacement is not at the precipice of icon status.
The Cardinals ended up in a position where they needed to replace three iconic figures in their history. Each one of them will be revered in one way or another for years to come (even Pujols). The Cardinals did not make rash decisions. They did not feel it was necessary to find the “top” player or replacement on the market. They opted to fill the spots with reputable players and coaches who find themselves in an excellent situation to succeed. Will anyone of them turn into icons down the line? It is possible. It is also likely that the next Cardinals icon is not on the team at the moment. The point is, it was not necessary to seek out the future icon of the organization when selecting replacements. The Cardinals did it right.
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