I get that I’m a bit late to the “Matheny is the Royals Manager take” party here on this blog. That’s what happens when you have a busy week as a high school teacher. Big things like this pop up, and you don’t have time to write about it until the wee evening hours of your precious weekend.
However, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the Matheny hire. I’m not going to go into the analytics of it all, as I have done that before on this blog. Instead, I want to look at how this hiring went down, and what it means for Royals fans not only next year, but perhaps beyond.
Because after all, being a Royals fan (much like other things some rappers have hinted at) isn’t easy.
Matheny was Moore’s guy all along
Mike Matheny was introduced as the Royals 17th manager in franchise history on Halloween, and for some Royals fans (i.e. a small minority) it was a nice treat, and for others (e.g. most rational Royals fans) it was a scary sign of things to come. The press conference was posted in its entirety on YouTube thanks to the Kansas City Star.
Matheny’s press conference is interesting for all kinds of reasons. However, what sticks out the most from Matheny’s interview is how “manufactured” it all felt. Nearly every answer and statement Matheny gave seemed like it had been through a rigorous PR ringer, as they seemed to address every issue Royals fans had with Matheny during the Royals’ managerial search. For some Royals fans, that was enough, for at the surface level, one could take away from the press conference that Matheny was a changed man, and that the Royals had made the right decision.
I mean, take a look at the image below. I’m sure people up in the Northland or in Paola are ready to post this above their dinner table next to portraits of the last supper:
But I didn’t grow up in Kansas City. I didn’t grow up in a small market. I am used to the critical voices of Ralph Barbieri and Henry Schulman in San Francisco; Mike Francesa and Mike Lupica in New York; and Bill Plaschke and TJ Seimers in Los Angeles. While many in the KC media were ready to throw Matheny and Dayton Moore softballs on introduction day, I wasn’t so apt to drink the kool-aid on Matheny.
Mostly because I think Moore had made the decision to hire Matheny as Yost’s heir apparent as far back as last season, which is when he hired Matheny as a special adviser to the organization.
I mean, take a look at how the comical process unfolded and it makes total sense.
1. Ned Yost announces his retirement on September 23rd, and national baseball writer Bob Nightengale reports this Tweet:
Almost immediately the backlash from the Royals fanbase is negative. Royals fans and blogosphere hates this move for good reasons: Matheny cut his managing teeth with the Cardinals, a rival of the Royals; he had an adversity to analytics; and he was known for burying younger players on the roster. The backlash is so negative that a web site actually pops up actively advocating AGAINST the Royals hiring Matheny.
2. As a response, rumors start to swirl that Pedro Grifol and others are candidates for the managerial positions. Unfortunately, the news feels disingenuous, especially after Dale Sveum dropped out of the race and Grifol gets a second interview with the Giants.
3. After the Royal DO hire Matheny, this interesting tweet corresponds with the news flood surrounding his hire:
Again…this tweet just reeks of a PR job by either the Royals or Matheny’s team. “Oh, look…Matheny took an analytics course! He’s changed guys! Here comes the World Series in 2020, Royals fans!”
I don’t know who’s decision this was, but it was an obvious response to the criticism about Matheny’s lack of respect for analytics while he was manager with the Cardinals. My guess? Moore and the Matheny PR team saw the backlash regarding Matheny’s lack of using analytics, had him take this course, and when he had “finished”, they made sure to coordinate an announcement to correspond with his hiring.
If you take a look at those three things, it’s obvious to infer that Moore didn’t want anyone else but Matheny to take the job. In fact, much like Nightengale’s report, he probably wanted to hire him earlier, but wanted to pushback to subdue a little, especially as the organization transitioned to new ownership. Moore liked Matheny’s “virtues and values” approach. Moore liked how “Matheny was a molder of men”. Moore liked how “Matheny was in the organization and had learned from his mistakes”.
Moore didn’t care what a vast amount of Royals fans were saying on the internet. Matheny was going to be the manager of the Royals in 2020, regardless of the publicity or fan or Royals blogosphere feedback.
And that’s the challenge of being a fan of a small-market team, especially in baseball.
Matheny and the challenges the Royals face as a small market club
The aptly named YouTube user “Urinating Tree” posted this video recently, which I uncovered on KC Royals Reddit:
The video makes a lot of valid points regarding the situation baseball fans face in Kansas City: baseball is inherently an unfair game economically (to be expected without a real salary cap; without a penalty, rich clubs have incentive to keep spending big), and for Royals fans, the odds are stacked against them. The Yankees and Red Sox make a mistake? They can fix it in a year or two with plenty of cash and resources. The Royals make a mistake? It can debilitate the organization for years, maybe decades.
Take a look at the Royals’ nose dive in the 90’s and 2000’s During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Royals were the small market miracle. They had a legitimate rivalry with the New York Yankees, and George Brett was one of the best players in baseball. Their uniforms were some of the most identifiable in the league, and that could be credited to their competitiveness as an organization. The Royals were to baseball during the 70’s and 80’s like the Sacramento Kings were to basketball in the early 2000’s and the Green Bay Packers to football.
But starting in 1993, the Royals began to decline. Bad moves, bad drafts, stupid trades, inconsistency in developing prospects, and an unwillingness to sign talented players ended up sinking the Royals long term. Royals fans suffered through managers like Buddy Bell, Tony Muser, Tony Pena, and Trey Hillman and players like Aaron Guiel, Yuniesky Bettancourt, and Gil Meche. It didn’t have to take much to sink the Royals to tremendous depths during the 90’s and 2000’s, but it happened, and Royals baseball fandom suffered in KC consequently.
The Royals should have been able to avoid that nightmarish stretch agai after the Pennants of 2014 and 2015. And yet, bad drafts and bad signings once again sunk the Royals to the tune of back to back 100-plus loss seasons. That is the reality “urinating tree” talks about in his video: small market clubs have to be perfect, for once bad move is all it takes to bring a club back to the bottom not just in the standings, but also in terms of fan attendance and support.
And that’s the challenge that Royals fans face with this hire. It’s tough enough to be a Royals fan. It’s tough to try to justify Bubba Starling as a possible OF candidate in 2020 when Christian Yelich, who was drafted after Starling, is a bonafide year-in and year-out MVP candidate in Milwaukee. It’s tough to come to the ballpark everyday, brave the shitty I-70 traffic to the Truman Sports Complex both before and after the game, and deal with the high concession and ticket prices just to see this club lose another 100-plus games. Royals fans need hope. Royals fans need promise.
Unfortunately, Matheny doesn’t bring that inspiration to Kansas City. Grifol would have, especially considering his track record with the Royals. Hell, even Carlos Beltran, who was just recently hired as the manager of the New York Mets would have. But Matheny? Just Christian bullshit and comically title memoirs is all we can expect as Royals fans here.
And it’s amazing that Moore does not see Matheny’s lack of value, both in the short term and long term.
Moore should know that one or two moves can make an already difficult situation, all the more arduous, especially in Kansas City, one of the smallest markets in Major League Baseball. Moore should know that the Royals need to be smart, maximize every dollar, and use all the data necessary to not only hire the right manager, but also make sure that the Royals are set up to compete now and in the future. Maybe “Moneyball” is too loaded a term. But the Royals should be smart, analytical and economic when it comes to building a winner in the Heart of America.
However, it doesn’t seem that Moore values how important every decision is for a small market club like Kansas City. He’s concerned about virtues over all else. He has built the analytics department, but at the end of the day, he will go with his gut and past behavior, much like Matheny will as the field manager of this club. They may say the right things, say they have changed, say they understand the modern game, but at the end of the day…they are who they are: Moore the old-school, ultra-Christian executive and Matheny, the old-school, hard-headed baseball type.
And Royals fans will have to deal with it. We will have to deal with their St. Louis Cardinals counterparts saying that the Royals made an “interesting decision” (the Midwest way of saying “you made a mistake”). We will have to deal with more lost years as a team and from individual players (let’s waste Whit’s and Soler’s best years like Damon and Dye), and even more discouragement in the stands on game day, as the Royals, a small-market club, digs themselves deeper into the inequity that is Major League Baseball.
The error for margin is so thin for small market baseball teams. And unfortunately, Moore hiring Matheny isn’t a step in the right direction to turn around the Royals’ fortunes. I don’t want to root against this club. I love the Royals more than any other sports team I follow. Hell, I got tickets to the Keep for the 2020 season at Kauffman because I love Royals baseball. I’m counting the days really until Fan Fest at the Convention Center.
But it’s hard to rally behind Matheny as a Royals fan who pay attention to the club all year-around. It’s hard to see him turn around a young roster into a winning one in the way Ned Yost did from 2013-2015.
Let’s see how Matheny’s PR team will handle things if the shit hits the fan in 2020 record-wise.
It’ll be a lot different from the opening press conference…that’s for sure.