The Backlash seems to be working.
At least for now, anyway.
When the Cardinals abruptly demoted catcher Willson Contreras after only 23 starts and reassigned him to DH duty, the incoming jolts of criticism rocked president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and manager Oli Marmol.
The front office and field manager were blasted hard locally and nationally. FanGraphs, The Athletic, CBS Sports, Baseball Prospectus and Yahoo Sports were among the media outlets that took a cudgel to the Cardinals.
I can’t say this for sure, but it seems to me that most Redbird Fans fans seemed outraged by the Contreras scapegoating and let the vitriol fly.
Not only was Contreras treated unfairly, but Mozeliak had the audacity to demean the catcher in an interview with Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic. Mozeliak suggested pitchers lack confidence in pitching to Contreras. And he engaged in hypocrisy.
“What I don’t want to have happen is a finger-point, this is all Willson’s fault. It’s not,” Mozeliak said. “There are many parts of our team right now that are not performing to what we expected.”
What is Mozeliak talking about? He doesn’t want finger pointing? Really? That’s pretty rich considering the way Marmol and Mozeliak brazenly pointed every finger they have at Contreras by ousting him from the catching position. And they did so to appease mediocre pitchers who wouldn’t take responsibility for their flaws.
This was all about responsibility-shifting, with a truckload of blame being dumped on Contreras. Mozeliak’s two-faced act was especially egregious. After all, Mozeliak was 100 percent responsible for arrogantly ignoring the warning signs before going into the season with another vulnerable starting rotation.
And on top of that, Mozeliak continues to absolve his personally-chosen starters of any responsibility for the team’s woeful 10-24 record on the day the organization went forward with a public rebuking of Contreras.
Even worse, it was Mozeliak who decided to spend $87.5 million of the owner’s money on Contreras – only to panic after realizing Contreras wasn’t at Yadier Molina’s level. I think he wants us to forget about that part.
“I do think the nuances of the catching side, we haven’t had to spend a whole lot of energy thinking about it because of what Yadi did for us,” Mozeliak told Rosenthal. “You know that saying, you sometimes feel like you had a coach on the field? That was Yadi. That’s how we thought. Even though you might have a game plan, Yadi had the ability to allow that to evolve during a game, real-time decision-making.”
So. The pitchers miss being bottle fed by Molina. But instead of telling the pitchers to grow up and adapt, Mozeliak actually went of his way to tell Rosenthal why the Cardinals misses Molina. Yeah, that will get the pitchers going.
You can’t make this up.
Mozeliak needs to hire a public-relations specialist.
Mozeliak doesn’t seem to understand that the team’s fans can connect the dots. They aren’t stupid. They understand that he’s responsible for the roster, including the pitching staff. They understand that he – no one else – cut the deal with Contreras. They understand that Mozeliak hired Marmol, who is getting worse instead of better in his second season at the helm.
This could have been the breaking point for fans that have an increasingly loathsome view of Mozeliak. And if home attendance drops – which I doubt it will – the empty seats will catch chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.’s attention.
The storm of criticism has prompted the Cardinals to go into damage-control mode. The withering attacks from the national media are especially painful for Mozeliak because he’s so accustomed to receiving doting, outside praise. And Marmol – who is overly sensitive – continues to dwell on perceived negativity from “the outside” instead of tuning it out to focus fully on cleaning up the sloppy baserunning and defense and making smarter decisions.
Now that these massive egos have been deflated – at least to some extent – by the rush of denunciation, the development can help the Cardinals.
The Backlash is stirring the blood.
The Backlash forced people to look at themselves.
The Backlash helped Contreras.
After his premature and unfair demotion and the cold-blooded nature of it all, Contreras became a sympathetic figure. And that guilted Oli Marmol and some Cardinals into action.
— There was Monday’s staged “We Love Willy” performance, with pitchers Adam Wainwright and Jack Flaherty (!) speaking to reporters at Wrigley Field to express their support and fondness for Contreras. The spin party came in the aftermath of a Sunday meeting called by Marmol to get Contreras, Wainwright and Flaherty in the same room.
“I do want to share something because I don’t want this to get over-compounded in the media without everyone knowing all the information,” Wainwright said Monday. “What we did was we sat him down and just poured into him. We love this guy. We’re glad he’s here. We want him to be our guy. Honestly, I don’t know if anyone’s ever told him that. But he’s appreciated. We love him. And we’re glad he’s here. We’re glad he’s part of our team, and I think it’s going to be a huge force for us going forward.”
— Side note: Wainwright is very good at these things. Seriously, he’s great. The bosses should have given the duty of explaining this imbroglio. Wainwright would have calmed everyone down from the beginning instead of throwing more gasoline on this management-created fire. Wainwright has unassailable credibility in an organization that’s losing credibility by the day.
— I’ll put my cynicism aside to say this: the “We Love Willy” initiative had a positive impact on Contreras. And that’s what really matters. This dude has a huge heart, he works his ass off, and had been treated like a yard dog by Marmol, Mozeliak and weak-minded pitchers who were having Yadi withdrawal problems. The pitchers – finally – will have to work with a catcher (Contreras) instead of expecting one of the all-time great catchers (Molina) do everything for them except throw the baseball.
Contreras needed a boost. And based on his comments Monday at Wrigley, Contreras sincerely appreciated the outreach from the two pitchers.
Speaking with Derrick Goold (STLtoday) late Monday night, Contreras said this: “I didn’t have a clear mind. I didn’t know what was going on with everything. I’ve been having long days. I have. I did that and then, OK, it’s over. The team needs me. The guys need me.”
— The Backlash definitely raised the awareness of the pitching staff. These people realize they can’t continue to use Contreras to shield them now that he’s been publicly scapegoated in such a ridiculous, upsetting way. If they mutter one bad word about Contreras, The Backlash will come for them. Instead of making Contreras the easy fall guy, they’ll have to be more accountable for their own performance. And when Contreras returns to catching, they’ll have to reengage and work harder to establish a meaningful connection.
— I don’t know if The Backlash will serve as a valuable lesson for Mozeliak. He clearly was rattled by it or he wouldn’t have bypassed local media to connect with The Athletic in an obvious attempt to curry favor with the hope of easing the damage to his reputation. It didn’t work; Rosenthal is too smart to walk into that trap. If anything, Mozeliak’s quotes made him look worse. But no donut about it; “Mo” was ruffled by the overwhelming reaction to his lead role in this controversy.
— Will it matter? Probably not. Mozeliak enjoys the comfort of strong job security and isn’t in danger of being fired unless DeWitt has a change of heart. For now, that’s highly doubtful. Mozeliak was gifted with a two-year contract extension during spring training. And Mozeliak and DeWitt are a team and work closely together. But it’s still wise to pay attention and beware of The Backlash.
— The Backlash could release forces that give a team more energy, more attitude and the desire to unify and rally against a haughty management. The players see what’s going on. There was Marmol’s unnecessary attack on Tyler O’Neill for a baserunning blunder in the fifth game of the season. There’s the shameless treatment of Contreras. An angry, hotly inspired baseball team could change the direction of the season by being rebellious. The Us Against The World thing is old. But it can work.
— The Backlash almost certainly will lead to a faster return to catching for Contreras. Marmol and Mozeliak were stung by their decision. They can see the swelling support for Contreras. Wainwright took the lead in proclaiming that Contreras will be back behind the plate and stressed how much he wants to pitch to him. And Contreras seems at peace with the team’s “plan” whatever that is. Marmol refuses to offer specifics. But Contreras is raring to go. The Backlash will speed up the timetable.
“I can’t wait to get behind the plate,” Contreras told reporters Monday. “That’s what my passion is about. That’s what the Cardinals got, a passionate guy that likes to work, likes to get better and likes to be behind the plate. And they know that, so right now, just focused on getting better, back on the field and especially behind the plate.”
The Backlash has exposed Mozeliak, inspired appreciation for Contreras, boxed Marmol in, put more scrutiny on the manager, the pitchers and pitching coach Dusty Blake.
— The team seems to be responding to The Backlash. Since the Contreras-related blowback began on Sunday, the Redbirds are 2-0. After squandering a lead, the Cardinals rallied to defeat the Tigers 12-6 on Sunday. Monday, the Redbirds took the first game of a three-night series at Wrigley Field, prevailing for a tense, 3-1 victory over the Cubs. Both wins featured good starting pitching by the Cardinals.
The visitors played with an edge.
Best of all, Contreras was the star of the game with two hits, two RBI and a run scored. Competing with high-level emotion in his return to Wrigley, Contreras was directly involved in all three runs scored by St. Louis and encouraged Cubs fans to boo him. His teammates went wild. They loved it.
Contreras’ live-wire competitiveness will be a big lift for this team unless Marmol and Mozeliak screw up again by damaging his morale.
Contreras may not want to be a DH, but he sent a clear message Monday: he’ll make the best of it because of his pride, passion and commitment to the Cardinals.
This man wanted to be a Cardinal and loves being a Cardinal.
It’s about time the Cardinals love him back.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
Listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and Miklasz. It’s available on your preferred podcast platform. Or follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Bill James Online and Baseball Prospectus.
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.