Mike Shildt’s puzzling dismissal should remind baseball fans the sport can be a ruthless business

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David Banks/USA Today Sports

Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

Mike Shildt getting fired by the St. Louis Cardinals before the midway point of October ranked near the bottom of the list for things likely to happen — at least to me.

Who saw this coming? The Cardinals sure did, with President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak commenting at a hasty afternoon press conference that “philosophical differences” were the reason for ties to be cut between Shildt and the team; a working relationship that stretches back 12 years. That’s like me describing an outing to a restaurant as being poor due to “philosophical differences” between myself and the chef. Like, what?

Mozeliak said this dismissal wasn’t about wins and losses or anything that had to do with how the team was managed; it was higher thinking that brought on the canning. In other words, Shildt is an old school baseball thinker and the Cardinals are becoming more sabermetrics-driven and relying on data analysis to get better than the other 29 teams in the league. That’s my take on it, from a broad standpoint. It’s not shooting from the hip to say that the relationship had frayed between president and team manager over the past few weeks, with the thrilling 17-game winning streak subdued by a disappointing result in the wildcard game.

Was it the fact that Shildt’s bullpen management hadn’t improved in his three-plus years as manager, an opinion that is backed up by the wildly misplaced usage of Alex Reyes in the wildcard matchup against the Los Angeles Dodgers? Was it the disconnect that formed between Shildt and hitting coach and data king Jeff Albert?

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Albert was also recruited by Mozeliak, and has been defended by the front office in the same way a mother protects her eight-year-old. While the offense did get it together, it took nearly five months and many headaches to get there. There’s a possibility that Shildt wanted Albert gone and Mozeliak refused, so the partnership ended. Maybe it’s something else.

The one person I can’t blame much is Shildt. Sure, there’s an argument to be made that if the Albert disagreement did occur, that’s a lot to bite off for a fella with only two full seasons as manager. But when you’ve spent the majority of your professional career with one team and done everything they’ve asked you to do — even sitting shotgun as Mike Matheny rode the roster into the ground —there’s a certain point where you demand something on your end. As it turned out, he wasn’t much of a “yes man” after all. The only possible explanation for such a sudden dismissal had to be a situation where one side didn’t want to give anymore.

As it stands, Shildt’s resume speaks for itself. While I had issues with his managerial tactics at times and wanted Mike Maddux to take over all pitching change decisions around August, his record and achievements should have another team calling very soon. After quickly improving the team and season after Matheny’s firing in 2018, Shildt took the team to the National League Championship Series in 2019, coming within four wins of a World Series appearance.

He followed that up with an unlikely playoff appearance in the truncated via COVID-19 2020 season, even if the San Diego Padres made quick work of Shildt’s Cards. The magic seemed to die this year, though. As the calendar flipped to September, St. Louis’ playoff hopes rested right next to my hopes of dating Scarlett Johansson: hopeless. But then they won the most games of any team that month, including a winning streak that set a franchise record. They trimmed the division lead from 13 to 5 by the final day of the season, locking in a game with the Dodgers. They lost it in brutal walk-off fashion, but the accomplishment of recovering a potentially lost season carried some merit.

Instead, Shildt was fired. Typing it out still causes my hand to reach for the delete button. While standing firmly away from inconceivable, this sent many baseball minds spinning. Puzzled by the timing, local sportswriters and fans all circled the probabilities and possible reasons — including the ones I examined above. But just imagine…getting fired over the phone 16 days after your team won its 17th game in a row and clinched an official playoff spot. That’s how Shildt found out Thursday.

It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes or Columbo to figure out that St. Louis craves a YES MAN these days. After battling Tony La Russa for 15 years — someone who preferred to not give any inches away in an argument — they want easy answers from the people in charge in the dugout. Someone like Matheny, whose only managerial experience was teaching kids how to swing a bat before his hiring. For months, many thought Shildt was that guy.

If I had to lay odds on who the next manager will be, it’s not Bruce Bochy. While the need to hire a manager with actual MLB experience is paramount, the Cardinals probably don’t think that way. Every single Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt Jr. comment on Thursday should have filled in the blanks about the type of operation going on here. It’s not a meritocracy; more like a front office leaning its foot out of the press box and down onto the playing field. Oct. 14 was a day where action spoke much louder than words.

Perhaps a reminder that baseball is indeed a business — don’t tell your bosses how to do their job or else — the Shildt firing left me respecting him even more than I did when he still had the job. An unlikely redirection: also known as the latest reminder that sports can still surprise you.

Here’s the thing. How many managers does Mozeliak get to go through before someone grades his work? I figured as long as DeWitt Jr. owns the team, but who knows? Whoever gets the job next, Skip Schumaker or Stubby Clapp among the candidates, I hope they understand the stakes and the “do not disturb” signs hanging around their office.

If we learned anything from the firing of Mike Shildt, it’s that the lay of the land around Busch Stadium’s front offices is a lot like the one down on the baseball diamond: Argue with the umpires (or Mozeliak) and you will get tossed.

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