Kansas City Royals: Can Mike Matheny inspire a culture change?

(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images) /

Mike Matheny should inspire the Kansas City Royals in creating a culture change, and can his past failures become the primary source of such inspiration?

The Kansas City Royals organization is counting on incoming manager Mike Matheny for inspiration, but more importantly, on shifting the team’s trajectory towards a winning path. They’re hoping that his past experiences (and failures) translate into creating a culture change for a team coming off losing 100 games for two straight seasons.

Mike Matheny is known for neither inspiration nor bringing about culture change. We must remember he took over a franchise fresh off winning a World Series title, that already had a well-established winning culture. The St. Louis Cardinals are arguably the most successful MLB ballclub in the last two decades, and Matheny had something to do with that achievement.

Only five short years before Matheny first arrived in St. Louis as a player, the club fired Joe Torre midseason after posting a 20-27 record, and managing four mediocre seasons without catching a playoff whiff. Torre won the World Series title the following year with the New York Yankees, which just goes to show the beauty of our game.

The Cardinals were just one win away from facing the Yankees in the 1996 World Series under new skipper Tony La Russa, just one year after Torre’s firing. For the next three years, the team returned to mediocrity (aside from Mark McGwire’s Home Run frenzy), but certainly not obscurity. In 2000, Mike Matheny became the starting catcher, and the club has enjoyed sustained excellence ever since.

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This isn’t to suggest that Matheny was the reason the team became wildly successful, as he was always a liability at the plate. However, it’s important to note that as the starting catcher, he was privy to the daily dealings of a well-ran organization in the midst of a culture change. Since joining the club in a starting role, his team won 95, 93, 97, 85, and 105 games respectively with a World Series appearance.

Matheny never delivered a losing season as manager, despite all his deficiencies and fair criticisms. It’s easy to grant all the credit to the players (they had just lost Albert Pujols in free agency), or the Cardinals organization, but Matheny was a key ingredient in the team performing well. We can have endless debates about his decision-making, or his apparent lack of communication with key players, but what’s evident is that he expects to win.

It’s unrealistic to demand an inexperienced skipper to enjoy success without failure. The managers discussed above in Torre and La Russa, both went through their fair share of failure before being regarded as two of the best managers in MLB history. The Mets, Braves, and Cardinals fired Joe Torre before he won four World Series titles with the Yankees, and the White Sox fired La Russa before he won three World Series titles with the Athletics and Cardinals. It’s not outlandish to suggest that those failures helped them become better managers later on.

The Royals are banking on Matheny having learned from his mistakes. He has taken it upon himself to assume full responsibility for his failures, and seems to have done some reflecting during his time away from the game on where things went wrong, and what he can do to improve moving forward. He mentions having pursued a Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership, took a course in Analytics, and worked on media relations. He’s seriously investing in bettering himself to help his new team.

It’s impossible to predict whether a leadership degree, or any of these courses enhances his role as manager of the Kansas City Royals, but it certainly shouldn’t hurt. The biggest ticket items that Matheny brings into his role are both his past successes and failures. We can all attest to being inspired by leaders who recover from previous disappointments, as they’re typically more relatable and easier to connect with through sheer humanity.

When addressing the team, Matheny can talk about his multiple appearances in the World Series as both manager and player, and what it took to get there. He can also talk about how he failed his previous team by not having enough preparation, not having enough humility to being open-minded, instead of getting stuck in his old ways, not caring enough about all his players and their treatment, and not wanting to commit the same mistakes this time around. These are messages that can bring about inspiration in a young and struggling team, which could develop an increased appetite into seeing numbers surge under the “win” column.

Matheny also risks failing miserably once again, and stare at his already damaged reputation plummet even deeper. He certainly has the tools and the experience to bring about a culture change to the Kansas City Royals. The ballclub’s top executives are ready to remove the “rebuilding” label and begin a path of sustained excellence.

They picked the right person for the job – someone who has produced consistent winning baseball first-hand in different capacities, but can he deliver? If things don’t work out, then hopefully he’s replaced before the team enters true Royal contention without much damage done.

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Abraham Lincoln once said, “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with that failure.” Let’s hope Matheny has zero interest in repeating his past failures and helps catapult the Kansas City Royals into World Series contenders for years to come.