Open
Close

Does Mike Matheny Really Have a Bullpen Snitch? Cardinals Craziness Continues

A stunning piece written by Mike Saxon for The Athletic has raised even more questions about the Cardinals’ team culture and the so-called leadership of manager Mike Matheny.

The Athletic is a paid-subscriber site, so Saxon’s story is behind a pay wall, but here are the basics:

# Veteran reliever Bud Norris has, in Saxon’s words, been “mercilessly riding” the outstanding rookie reliever Jordan Hicks, 21.

# Norris told Saxon that he decided early on that he “wasn’t going to allow Hicks to let loose work habits affect his readiness to perform.”    This was in reference to Hicks’ bad habit of frequently being late to meetings or morning reporting times during spring training this year. The Cardinals disciplined Hicks by sending him to the minor-league side of camp for a while, but the team added him to the 25-man roster for the start of the regular season. Hicks is not always in sync with punctuality.

# Matheny is fine with Norris taking it upon himself to police Hicks. and, in Saxon’s words, “publicly calling (Hicks) out when he is lagging in any of the details a visitor might not notice, but other players do.”

# Asked by Saxon if Hicks will one day appreciate the Norris’ tough-love approach, Matheny didn’t really know. Matheny chuckled and said,  “Probably not. But Bud’s going to continue to do what he thinks is right as a veteran, so you respect that.”

# Matheny is enthusiastic about Norris’ old-school enforcer mentality. As Saxon wrote: “Matheny sees Norris’ actions as an effort to carry on the dying tradition of teaching younger players in the harshest possible ways. Matheny himself faced that on the Milwaukee Brewers when he broke in as a young catcher 24 years ago.”

# Matheny told Saxon: “I think the game has progressively gotten a little softer.  Man, it had some teeth not that long ago.”

# Based on a brief quote, Hicks didn’t seem to be enjoying the Norris version of mentoring. When Saxon asked Hicks if he thinks Norris’ tactics  will one day pay dividends in his career,  the rookie said: “I have no idea. No comment.”

# Thursday, we had some elaboration from Hicks via social media. First there was a tweet by Angels closer Keynan Middleton, a teammate of Norris in Anaheim last season.  “After being under his wing last year,” Middleton wrote, “I can promise you he’s only looking out for Hicks. Bud is a big lead by example guy. Once I learned that our relationship changed forever.”

# Hicks used his Twitter account to respond to Middleton’s tweet. “I couldn’t agree more,” Hicks wrote. “Crazy what the media will do when they think there is a story. Solid vet.”

Here’s where this old-school boss narrative takes another disturbing turn:

According to Saxon, Matheny said he “invited Norris to take leadership of the bullpen,” … and that Norris has responded by giving Matheny “occasional reports of pitchers not living up to the standards the team set in spring training.”

And, as part of that Matheny told Saxon he has fined players after reading Norris’ reports.

“I get regular updates,” Matheny told Saxon.  “But that’s good. I invited him into that. We need leadership with each sub-culture of the team, including the bullpen, and he’s keeping an eye. He’s a stickler for what we established early on.”

Goodness.

Just when you think the 2018 Cardinals couldn’t get any crazier, now we have this.

Is Norris really snitching on teammates, and with Matheny’s approval?

Or at Matheny’s request?

And when Norris presents his findings to Matheny, is the manager really using the information to impose fines on players cited in the report?

Now that Hicks has let it be known that he doesn’t have a problem with Norris, then we don’t have to wonder if Norris was going too far, by bullying or hazing Hicks. Unless Hicks makes that claim  himself, there’s no other reason to believe otherwise.

And it’s always healthy when an established veteran mentors a rookie, and holds the rookie accountable. This has been going on in major-league baseball forever. The Cardinals in recent times have been fortunate to count on Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright to teach, guide and push young pitchers. It’s a valuable thing.

I would rip bullying. I would rip hazing. I would rip mean-spirited harassment. I would rip insults tainted with bigotry.  But if Hicks isn’t publicly whistling Norris for a foul here, then Hicks must see Norris as a man and teammate with good intentions.

I think it’s a little odd that Norris — who has been a Cardinal for about 12 minutes — has taken on this role, because he doesn’t have a history with this franchise, and hasn’t built equity here. But I digress.

Hicks defending Norris has put at least some of the concerns to rest. Because this is a different time and place in MLB. Different rules, revised standards, modern protocol. It isn’t 1968. Pitchers aren’t Bob Gibson. They don’t go nine innings. Managers use four relievers a game. Hitters swing for the fences. No one cares if these wannabe sluggers each strike out 170 times per season. And, after all, MLB put in a no-hazing policy in 2016.

Matheny may have enjoyed those good old “harshest possible” days when rookies were put in their place, told to shut up, got treated like dogs, and openly humiliated, but that doesn’t fit the 2018 culture. That’s over. To think MLB players in 2018 should still be following the bully-boy protocol of the late 1950s, or 1960s, is just as stupid as insisting that the modern-day advertising public-relations firm up the street has a workplace environment straight out of a “Mad Men” episode.

But unless there’s been some misunderstanding here, it sure seems like Norris is snitching for Matheny, and getting teammates fined. That isn’t cool. That would be a betrayal. It would be disgusting on many levels. And how, exactly does this qualify as effective managerial leadership? How does having a narc in the bullpen engender trust, strengthen unity, and build team brotherhood? How does having a player rat out teammates instill complete confidence in each other to pull together during difficult times?

Last week we learned that Matheny barely speaks to center fielder Dexter Fowler.

This week we learned that Matheny has his own private detective, Bud Norris, doing surveillance on teammates.

Just lovely.

This is what troubles me: I hate seeing all of the harm that’s being done to this franchise.

The Cardinals have been getting crushed nationally since The Athletic posted Saxon’s story on Wednesday afternoon.

Here are some samples; some are outdated and written before Hicks came forward to stick up for Norris. But that doesn’t change the reality: Bad Publicity hit the Cardinals again … and hard.

* Headline from the sports site The Comeback:  “St. Louis Cardinals Pitcher Bud Norris sounds like a pretty terrible teammate, adding to that team’s clubhouse dysfunction.”

* Excerpt from The Comeback: “Of course, if there was any MLB locker room where this kind of thinking would take root, it would be St. Louis. The franchise, many fans, and even some local media love to extol their old school mantras and  ‘The Cardinal Way.’ It’s the perfect environment for a manager who thinks players today aren’t tough enough and a journeyman pitcher with a chip on his shoulder who wants to flex his muscles over younger, better players. Given the potential that a hard-throwing pitcher like Jordan Hicks presents, you’d think that a baseball franchise would want to go out of its way to make sure he was taken care of and feeling good about his place in the organization. Not so for the Cardinals. Ultimately, everyone in the clubhouse will be measured by wins and losses, but in the meantime let’s hope that an adult starts checking in on things to make sure something really dumb doesn’t happen in the name of  ;toughening up’ rookies.”

* Headline from Vice Sport: “Bud Norris is Bad for Baseball.”

* Excerpt from Vice Sport: “Baseball is fun and Norris’s ‘old school’ act for the St. Louis Cardinals is rubbing some of his teammates the wrong way. Maybe that’s why MLB is having a hard time engaging young fans, too. … this is a particularly bad look for the Cardinals in light of their recent public spat with Dexter Fowler. But it’s not specifically a Cardinals problem. As many people as there are who think that the idea of encouraging co-workers to harass and tattletale on each other is ridiculous, there are a not insignificant number of people—both in baseball and out—who think that the sport needs more of this kind of aggressive hard-assery. The game, and society with it, are getting too soft, they opine; too little discipline, too much expression, too little respect for the way the game used to be played.”

* Yahoo Sports headline: “Report: Bud Norris has been repeatedly harassing a Cardinals rookie and their manager seems cool with it.”

* Deadspin headline: “Mike Matheny Respects Bud Norris For Being a Relentless D–k to Teammate Jordan Hicks.”

* Excerpt from Deadspin: “The St. Louis Cardinals are plainly, self-evidently enduring a period of persistent, chronic dunderheadedness. … Nothing makes that more plain than the fact that they’re publicly feuding with one of their own players, but that’s not been the only sign: Tommy Pham, who broke out last season with the Cardinals, in his age-29 season, publicly called out the organization for jerking him around prior to the start of this season; last season stalwart catcher Yadier Molina had to clap back at manager Mike Matheny after Matheny stupidly cited Molina’s baserunning as justification for integrating rookie Carson Kelly; last winter anonymous Cardinals players bitched to a local columnist that the team’s ballyhooed grit was being polluted by players who came up in other organizations. … this is the most St. Louis Cardinals story of all. Norris is snitching on his teammates to their boss; he’s also relentlessly hectoring a younger teammate for goofy, intangible reasons; the teammate isn’t enjoying it at all; even his manager can’t say for sure whether the harsh treatment of Hicks will pay long-term dividends. But, hey, since Norris is going to do it no matter what, you’ve got to respect it. And why? So Bud Norris has taken it upon himself to mercilessly berate Jordan Hicks over every little mistake, which Hicks doesn’t find useful, and the manager says the game is getting soft.”

OK, now let’s peek in on Twitter: 

* Chris Towers of CBSSports.com: “Baseball: Where being a jerk to your teammates — in a way your teammates admit bothers them! — garners praise from your manager. Even though your manager admits he doesn’t know if it helps!”

* Jon Tayler of SI.com:  “Also a huge surprise is that Mike Matheny comes off like a complete dunce in this.”

* Lindsey Adler of The Athletic NYC “So Bud Norris has taken it upon himself to mercilessly berate Jordan Hicks over every little mistake, which Hicks doesn’t find useful, and the manager says the game is getting soft.”

* ESPN’s Keith Law, in a response to Adler: “Honestly, Matheny tolerating this bullshirt is good enough reason to fire him.”

* Jared Diamond, baseball writer for the Wall Street Journal: ” Sorry, I can’t get over how terrible Bud Norris and Mike Matheny come off in that story. The worst part is, based on how the story is presented, it seems like they have no idea how awful they came off.”

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Hey, Matt Carpenter Is Really Good. Please Tell Your Neighbor And Local Sportswriter