The Cardinals have hired a young manager. You may know him. His name is Oliver Marmol.
In other parts of the fan-media baseball universe, Marmol seems to have two other names:
1-Carlos Marmol. Hey, is that the same dude who pitched for the Cubs?
2-Who? As in, “The Cardinals hired WHO?”
This is understandable. It’s not as if Marmol was overly familiar to Cardinals fans. Sure, the BFIB knew of him, but Oli Marmol kept a low profile with media and fans. We’d see him standing next to Mike Shildt in the dugout — Marmol was, after all, the bench coach — but his face was a lot more prominent than his baseball identity.
“Hey, why do they have that young guy as a bench coach? Isn’t that type of job supposed to go to old dudes like Don Zimmer?”
Unless the A’s or Mets fill their manager vacancies with puppies, Marmol will be the youngest manager in the majors next season at 35.
Is that an issue?
I don’t believe so.
Tony La Russa was hired at age 34 to manage the White Sox in 1979. TLR took over a team that had drifted to nine losing seasons in 11 years before he moved into the manager’s office. La Russa finished with a winning overall record (.515) and in 1983 guided the White Sox to their first postseason appearance since 1959.
Have other extra-young managers failed? Sure. Absolutely. But we also must recognize this reality: there haven’t been many big-league managers hired before their 4oth birthday.
And we must also recognize that there’s a humongous list of older managers that have failed. I don’t think success is determined by anything close that qualifies as an age-specific consideration.
Let’s look at the young dudes…
— There’s the interesting young player-manager category, highlighted by Bucky Harris and Lou Boudreau. Harris was 27 years old when the Washington Senators made him manager in 1924, and he led the Nats to two American League pennants and one World Series title. Pretty, pretty good for a manager who was also playing 655 games (mostly at second base) from 1924 through 2028. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a manager in 1975.
— Boudreau, a Hall of Fame shortstop, became Cleveland’s manager in 1942 at age 24. He won AL pennants in 1944, 1948, and 1950. Three AL pennants by age 32? Outstanding.
But unless Marmol decides to write himself into the Cardinal lineup, the young player-manager category is closed. (Forget about Pete Rose; he became player-manager in Cincinnati in 1984 at age 43. Too old to fit this classification.)
What about young managers only? Those who weren’t trying to play and manage at this same time?
— Branch Rickey, 1913 St. Louis Browns, age 31. At that time he became the youngest non-player manager of baseball’s modern era and piloted the Browns for three seasons. He also managed the Cardinals for six-plus seasons beginning in 1919 at age 37. Rickey went on to be known for more prominent, historically profound achievements as GM of the Cardinals and Dodgers.
— Dave Bristol, Cincinnati Reds, 1966. He was 33 when taking over as interim manager during the ‘66 season and led the Reds to a winning record the rest of the way. Bristol then posted three consecutive winning seasons before the Reds went in another direction after the 1969 season. Interesting footnote: Bristol was hired to manage the Reds by Bill DeWitt Sr. Bristol had impressed DeWitt Sr. with his work as a coach and manager in the Reds farm system. Sound familiar?
— Frank Quilici, Minnesota Twins, in 1972, age 33. Quilici played multiple infield positions for the Twins from 1965 through 1970. Admired for his leadership abilities as a Twins player, the organization concluded he was the right man to fix a bad-mood set after firing Bill Rigney about halfway through the ‘72 season. Quilici had a winning percentage of .495 in three-plus seasons before his firing at the end of 1975. He stayed with the Twins for many years, mostly as a popular team broadcaster in the Twin Cities.
— Terry Francona, Philadelphia Phillies, 1997, age 38. He drew notice for his work as a young minor-league manager and the Phillies installed him as manager as part of a massive rebuild. He lasted four seasons and had a poor .440 winning percentage that really wasn’t his fault. Francona was criticized for being too buddy-buddy with the players. He was much, much better as a manager in subsequent stops in Boston and Cleveland. Francona won two World Series as the Red Sox manager including the 2004 title that was the first for the franchise since 1918.
— Eric Wedge, Cleveland Indians, 2003, at age 35. He didn’t have much of an MLB playing career (39 games.) He gained support and trust while managing his way through Cleveland’s farm system — especially at the Triple-A affiliate in 2001 and 2002. That made him the natural choice as Cleveland’s new manager in 2003. At 35 Wedge was six years younger than any other MLB manager at the time — and younger than three of his players. Wedge’s teams did some good things in his seven Cleveland years including 93 wins in 2005, and 96 wins in 2007. Cleveland made two trips to the playoffs under Wedge, and just fell short of making the World Series in 2007 after losing a seven-game ALCS to Boston. Wedge was voted AL Manager of the Year in 2007. His overall winning percentage for Cleveland: .495. He later had another shot at managing (Seattle Mariners.)
–A.J. Hinch, Arizona Diamondbacks, 2009, age 35. The D-Backs front office was a little ahead of its time, wanting a manager who was well versed in this crazy new thing called “analytics.” Hinch’s belief in advanced metrics wasn’t popular with his players, and that pretty much doomed him in his first shot at big-league managing. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow coveted Hinch’s intelligence and forward-thinking outlook and hired him as Houston’s manager in 2015. Hinch had great success in Houston, with a .594 winning percentage, two AL pennants and the 2017 World Series title. The 2017 championship was terribly tainted by a sign-stealing scandal that led to a one-year suspension for Hinch by MLB. He’s drawing positive reviews as the manager in charge of the Detroit Tigers’ rebuild.
In more recent times:
— Kevin Cash was only 37 when Tampa Bay hired him before the start of 2015. The financially-challenged Rays were in a reset phase during Cash’s first two seasons, and they were about average (80-82) in his third year. But over the last four seasons Tampa Bay has a .597 winning percentage, two AL East titles and the 2020 AL pennant.
— The Twins hired Rocco Baldelli as manager at age 37 before the 2019 season. He won 101 games in his first season and went 36-24 in the shortened 2020 season before tailing off to an unexpectedly disappointing 73-89 record in 2021. That’s a three-season winning percentage of .545. Baldelli spent seven seasons in the big leagues, batting .278 with a .443 slugging percentage. That probably helped him earn credibility with Twins players.
So what does this have to do with Marmol?
One trend jumps out at me: when young managers thrive, the team infrastructure is a significant factor. A good young manager won’t win right away — if at all — if he steps into a chaotic situation for a team that lacks talent, a smart plan, and lousy leadership.
Example: Tito Francona had no chance to win at Philadelphia. He had a great chance to succeed at Boston because he went to work for GM Theo Epstein. He entered a positive situation with a Cleveland organization led by talented baseball man Mark Shapiro.
When Mike Matheny became the Cards manager at age 41, he inherited a team that had a winning culture and a management operation that knew how to build winning teams. Matheny’s .555 winning percentage, four postseasons and the 2013 NL pennant as Cardinals manager reflected the internal strength that St. Louis baseball has been known for since Bill DeWitt Jr. became team chairman in 1996.
Gabe Kapler wasn’t going to win as a first-time manager in Philadelphia; his analytics-based ideas were a poor fit for a Phillies organization that was stuck in the past. But Kapler has been a tremendous manager with San Francisco after finding an ideal fit with a front office that embraces analytics.
I see a potential parallel between Marmol and Kevin Cash. Why? Because of the infrastructure I’ve referenced.
Despite a shortage of revenue, the Tampa Bay front office does a superb job of drafting and developing players. And that front office has an eagle-eyed knack for finding low-cost, high-value pickups in trades and free-agent signings.
The Cardinals’ operation isn’t as adept as the operation in Tampa Bay, but let’s avoid being stupid here, OK? Since 2000 the Cardinals have the best regular-season winning percentage in the National League, and have made more postseasons than an NL team. The Cardinals continue to do a better job than most organizations in the key area of drafting and developing players.
Why do you think Matheny and Mike Shildt were able to have higher winning percentages as Cardinal manager than Tony La Russa and Whitey Herzog?
Answer: Infrastructure, stability and continuity. Those things matter a helluva lot more than Hot-Take Nation is capable of realizing. And though mistakes — obviously — have been made, those errors haven’t caused any kind of collapse.
Sorry, folks. Missing the playoffs three straight years while posting winning records isn’t a collapse. Go to Pittsburgh or Baltimore if you want to see a collapse, OK?
Even with the frustrating mistakes, the talent continues to flow. And the STL baseball department’s operating style — while boring at times — is steady and capable of recovering. The Cardinals need stronger overall talent, and it’s up to the front office to strengthen the base.
The teams with proven infrastructures are a good spot for young, inexperienced managers. Marmol is fortunate. He can’t screw up the opportunity, and I don’t think he will.
As I’ve said and written before: Marmol understands why the Cardinals have made it to the postseason eight times in the last 11 seasons — including the last three postseasons. But he also understands that the dugout staff can be better at maximizing player personnel, and going deeper into analytics to enhance the level of winning.
The question has been out there: why hire Shildt’s bench coach? Aren’t you promoting a manager that’s basically the same as the fired manager?
“Those comments I think might stem from just a more narrow view of what the manager role is — meaning game-day management,” Cardinals president Bill DeWitt III told me on my KFNS radio show. “I don’t have a lot of criticism about Mike on that front. I mean, some people thought it was because he put in Alex Reyes (into the wild-card game) — that was the last reason it would have been.
“It’s more about those multiple skill sets that I think is critical for that role today. You’ve got to have the game-day management and the baseball knowledge. That’s a given. It has to be there. But once you feel good about that, it really becomes about all those other things that are critical in today’s game and in today’s world, media environment and etcetera.”
“Super nice guy, personable, gets along with everybody,” DeWitt III said. “Number two, he really knows the game. Obviously he rose up very quickly as bench coach. And that job, particularly in the modern baseball world can be a very important job as it relates to game-day decision making, being on your toes, and understanding all of the different options as the game unfolds. And it can unfold pretty quickly in high-pressure situations as you know.
“The other critical set of skills that I think he brings to the table is that collaborative approach to working with the front office, working with the media, and working with the players themselves, working with a lot of coaches. That’s a lot of different types of skill sets lot of skill sets — baseball skills, people skills — he has in droves in every respect.”
Marmol is a strong relationship guy. DeWitt views that as a plus. But the strong relationship can’t exist only because the manager is doing the buddy-buddy thing and not challenging players. It isn’t a strong relationship if the manager is afraid to push veterans — and with the skill to do it the right way.
“It’s all about developing relationships and trust with your players, and they need to know that you have their best interests in mind,” DeWitt III said. “The team is the most important thing, but having those good relationships with the players is important because you’re not always going to do something that a player likes. One guy’s opportunity is another guy’s missed opportunity.
“So being able to have that honest and open dialogue with players about why you’re doing what you’re doing is critical to that role. And I would say that the same thing really about explaining moves and other things to the media, which can pretty quickly see through BS. You don’t tell them everything because of sensitivity matters, but you’d better be pretty open and forthright about your thinking or they’ll kind of bury you.”
(Bernie note: Otherwise known as “Happy Talk,” to the point of absurdity.)
Marmol comes to the job at a favorable time. The talent should improve for 2022. He’ll be taking advantage of the many tools, including analytics, that are available to managers. He has existing relationships in the clubhouse. He has the enthusiastic backing of a front office and ownership team that is convinced the time is right for him.
The rest is up to Marmol: how he handles pressure, the demands of the job, the inevitable conflicts that arise within. How will he deal with a player that’s ticked off over being benched or otherwise assigned a lesser role? How does he push back if the front office nudges him to implement an idea that he opposes?
We can’t answer any of these things now. But the Cardinals have fired two winning managers since the middle of July, 2018. That tells us something: the Cardinals’ managing job comes with heavy pressure.
Marmol won’t succeed or fail because of his age. Bad managers have done the job poorly at any age, young or old or in the middle. Good managers have gotten it done at an early age, or an advanced age, or any stage of life. This year’s World Series is being managed by Dusty Baker (age 72) and Brian Snitker (age 66.)
It comes down to the manager having good enough talent to work with — and getting the best out of that talent. It comes down to the front office giving you roster help when it’s obviously needed. And it comes down to the manager’s personality, and how he deals with people in a changing game, and the changing world that DeWitt III alluded to. And it comes with the pressure that eventually got to Matheny and Shildt and caused them to break.
The Cardinals are betting on Marmol to change the pattern. He is confidently betting on himself. The foundation for success is there. Don’t think so? Then just look at this franchise’s record of success since 2020. But one failure is finding the right personality fit for the manager’s office. It’s Marmol’s turn now. Can he endure, and make his new job last for a long time? Can the young manager Marmol stay with the Cardinals to become the middle-aged manager Marmol?
Thanks for reading …
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.