Books for the Birds: The Matheny Manifesto
Recently, on a road trip from LA to Albuquerque to visit friends and attend the amazing Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, I listened to the Audible audio book of The Matheny Manifesto. I can’t say it really satisfied my thirst for knowledge in the desert, but it was diverting enough to help pass the time.
The book is mostly devoted to Matheny’s philosophies on coaching youth sports, rather than on his professional career. The titular manifesto refers to a letter he wrote to the parents who asked him to coach a team. The letter laid out his rules and the conditions under which he’d accept the job – the main one being that parents had to keep quiet at the games, no criticizing the kids or questioning the coaches, not even any cheering. He makes it clear that he didn’t call the letter a manifesto – the parents pronounced it thus, and it eventually went viral under that name. However, reading the book, you do get the feeling that Matheny has absolute beliefs and doesn’t want to be questioned on anything.
I felt the parts about coaching kids had good insights, but the chapters just went on too long and got very repetitive. The passages about his own childhood and growth as a ballplayer and manager were more interesting to me. I thought he could have gone deeper into his feelings about the concussion that ended his career. The book doesn’t go deep in general when it comes to discussing his relationships with other players or family. It’s a very surfacey book. It almost reads more like the book proposal than an actual book. And given his strong Christian faith, it’s not surprising that the book often comes across as preachy.
The later chapters that concern Matheny getting the job as Cardinals manager got to be somewhat irritating when he talked about how he had assembled his “personal board of directors” that he consults when he has to make important decisions or needs coaching for big events like his interview with the Cardinals. Everyone on the board is male, not surprisingly. It just seemed kind of egotistical to refer to a “personal board” – why not just say “my friends”? You don’t get the feeling from reading the book that he has friends, other than John Mabry (who helped him coach the youth team before helping him coach the Cardinals). Calling people “my personal board of directors” just makes it seem like a one-way relationship where they are mentoring him.
I was really struck by this passage in Chapter 3, where Matheny talks about “conditional love,” warning that it’s important to treat players well even when they are in a slump.
“What hurts is when an everyday, journeyman player goes on a hot streak or even has an all star half season, suddenly he’s looked at in a different light…maybe he’s developed a fan club or a cheering section, the press has taken a liking to him…for a time, everyone wants a piece of him…then comes the inevitable slump or the player just settles back into his realistic performance level. He’s still a quality ball player, still a big leaguer, still a professional player but because he’s not the standout he was last week, he doesn’t get the same attention from anyone anymore including his manager. Manager, boss, parent, whoever treats a player, a subordinate or a kid that way is exhibiting a simple, shallow personality trait: conditional love. And I don’t know one recipient of it who can’t see right through it.”
Listening to this, I could only think about Brandon Moss, and Matheny’s insistence on keeping him in the lineup during his historic slump in the second half of this season. Now I guess I understand why he did it, but I still don’t think it helped Moss, and it definitely didn’t help the team.
In Chapter 8, Matheny talks about being a kid and being frustrated about lack of playing time one Summer. He complained to his parents who told him: “Sometimes life isn’t fair, but the coach is the coach and he’s always right, even when he’s wrong.” While first baffled and angry about the comment, Matheny decided to just train harder and ended up getting back in the lineup. Cardinals fans can see this stubbornness in Matheny today, and this year many of us felt frustrated by it. Unfortunately we can’t train harder to change things. All we can do is vent on Twitter.
He talks a lot about his Christian faith and his drive to be kind, never swear, drink or fight. That’s all admirable in life, but there have been times when I think more fire from the manager might have sparked the Cardinals. Matheny lacks the aggressiveness to challenge an umpire to the point of getting tossed and doesn’t seem to want to retaliate when his players get hit by the pitcher (resulting in some key injuries this season). I wouldn’t say nice guys finish last in baseball, but it does seem that having a bit of an edge might be the difference between just contending and winning. La Russa rescued puppies, but he still had the edge!
The audiobook is not read by Mike, but the guy who reads it conveys the appropriate tone of humblebrag. Overall, I found there were enough insights into baseball and anecdotes about managers such as Phil Garner and Tony La Russa and many Cardinals greats like Molina, Pujols, Wainwright to make the book a must-read for Cardinals fans. It definitely gave me a better undestanding of why Matheny does the sometimes inexplicable things he does. But you may want to skim over a lot of the youth sports stuff. And I wish there was some insight into why changing the lineup everyday is a good thing to do – is that a hold over from coaching little league and making sure everyone gets to play?