Cards' coaching staff has made seamless transition
Matheny, Lilliquist, Mabry learned from predecessors La Russa, Duncan, McGwire
ST. LOUIS -- Gone are the future Hall of Fame manager, the big-name hitting coach and the longtime pitching instructor, and in stepped three men, inexperienced in their new roles, but no strangers to the organization.
Losing Tony La Russa, Mark McGwire and Dave Duncan would be a significant blow to any club, and a dropoff in success could be expected. But in St. Louis, where Mike Matheny, John Mabry and Derek Lilliquist took the reins, the Cardinals are right back where La Russa left them -- the World Series.
"Our coaching staff has done a great job," said pitcher Chris Carpenter, now in his 11th season in St. Louis. "They've done a great job. Mike is doing a great job managing, [Lilliquist] learned under [Duncan] and [Mabry] learned under [McGwire]. Everybody here is on the same boat."
La Russa managed the Cardinals for 16 seasons, the longest tenure for any St. Louis skipper in franchise history. His tenure included 1,408 victories, three pennants and two World Series championships in 2006 and 2011. Duncan was the architect of the club's pitching staff from 1996-2011, leaving his post as his wife's health declined. McGwire, the former Cardinals slugger, returned to the team he ended his playing career with as the club's hitting coach in 2010.
All three have since moved on, and Matheny -- a former Gold Glove catcher -- was hired as La Russa's successor, while Lilliquist and Mabry were promoted from within. Matheny played five seasons under La Russa from 2000-04, resulting in a smooth transition that maintained the franchise's culture and atmosphere from the former regime to its current.
"We thought it was important to have someone who understood the culture of the organization," general manager John Mozeliak said of hiring Matheny. "I do think there's something to be said for when you look down our bench and those coaches all have time here. Yes, we may have lost a face or two, but I think most people understood the expectations and how this was going to be run."
When Matheny took over as manager in 2012, Lilliquist, who had spent nine years in the organization and one year as the big league bullpen coach, assumed the pitching coach job vacated by Duncan. Lilliquist was the pitching coordinator at the club's Jupiter (Fla.) complex from 2008-10 after five years in the club's Minor League ranks.
"We know what's expected [in this organization] and we translate that and give it to our players," Lilliquist said. "It was a pleasure to watch [the transition], and they certainly did a great job here during their tenure. But it's all about our players. We've got good players who have gone out and done a nice job for us."
One year later, Mabry, the assistant hitting coach in 2012, replaced McGwire when he accepted the same position with the Dodgers. Mabry was drafted by the Cardinals in 1991 and was a teammate of Matheny's under La Russa in the early 2000s.
"We've been around for a while," Mabry said. "It's just one of those things where you just try to do what you can and not try to fill people's shoes, but you try to do what you know and help people where they need to be helped."
Though La Russa, Duncan and McGwire are no longer in uniform, their presence is felt through their successors. Matheny, Lilliquist and Mabry were each groomed from within the organization and learned from the three men who preceded them.
When asked what managerial tactics and advice he picked up from La Russa, Matheny said, "Well, we'd be all day." Before Matheny even knew he'd have an opportunity to manage in the Major Leagues, La Russa was talking to him about the job.
"He's an open book in the way that he managed and how he communicated with me, which I know is a gift," Matheny said. "It's something I'll always be grateful for. You could go topic to topic all the way across this game and the responsibilities of this job. He made an intentional move to try to help me learn."
Since La Russa retired after the 2011 season, the Cardinals have won 185 games, and after losing in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series last season, have reached the World Series for the fourth time in 10 years. Now four wins away from the franchise's 12th championship, Matheny and his staff are paving their own path.
"It was quite a learning curve going on with everyone last year. Everyone learning each other, everyone learning responsibilities and how to distribute those responsibilities," Matheny said. "I think it's been a little more seamless, maybe [this year]. In general, I've never made it a big secret that this is the most used staff in all of baseball. I use my staff, I'm certain, more than anyone else in the league.
"I know we have extremely talented people here, so I use that talent that they have. I'm not ashamed by that. If I'm blessed to be able to do this for a long time, I would hope that I would always do the exact same thing."
Chad Thornburg is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.