Mike Matheny stepped into the job as Kansas City Royals manager with open eyes and a steely determination to see the club through its transition from down years to sustained success.
After three years and a change of leadership atop the organization’s baseball operations department, Matheny’s tenure as the Royals’ manager ended Wednesday night following the club’s season finale at Cleveland and a last-place finish in the American League Central Division.
Less than a month after CEO and chairman John Sherman fired Dayton Moore, the man who hired Matheny (first as a special advisor and then as the club’s manager) — Moore’s successor and longtime lieutenant J.J. Picollo — fired Matheny along with pitching coach Cal Eldred.
Matheny, 52, spoke to The Star by telephone on Thursday just before Picollo’s news conference. He addressed Moore’s departure, the decision made by Picollo, his tenure as manager and the future of the club and its young core.
“I felt that as soon as Dayton was let go that this was inevitable,” Matheny said. “I felt like I was here and fit here with the plans and the movement and the vision of what Dayton had.
“When that changed, then I figured it probably wasn’t going to be a fit for me. But I let the organization know I’m ready to move forward and do whatever we need to do.”
Despite Moore’s firing, Matheny wanted to remain at the helm. But he wasn’t oblivious to the tenor around the baseball operations department following Moore’s departure.
Matheny described Moore’s firing as “heavy” and one of several painful parts of this season, and he included the mid-season dismissal of hitting coach Terry Bradshaw as one of the events of the past season that hurt him personally.
Matheny expressed no ill will toward Picollo, instead saying Picollo had been put in a tough position and had to make tough decisions.
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“We had great interaction. I have a lot of respect for J.J., and I like him,” Matheny said. “But there was an obvious elephant in the room after that move was made. The themes of the conversations, organizationally, were about change. I get it. The buck stops at my desk. When things aren’t looking how ownership or leadership would like it to look, there should be one spot it goes to.
“I don’t take that lightly. I understood that going in. That’s part of the job description. I didn’t come in here talking about helping young players develop. I came in here talking about winning baseball games. When you talk about that and you don’t deliver, these things happen.”
In three seasons, including a pandemic-shortened 60-game season in 2020, Matheny’s teams compiled a record of 165-219.
He inherited a team that had posted back-to-back seasons of more than 100 losses in 2018 and 2019.
During his tenure, the Royals saw nearly 30 players make their major-league debuts.
Late this season, they regularly fielded starting lineups that featured six to eight rookie position players on top of a starting pitching rotation with four to five pitchers (they used six starters late in the year) with three years or fewer in the majors.
“I believed in the organization and where everything was headed,” Matheny said. “I understood that we had a huge challenge in front of us, understood that there were some hurdles and this wasn’t necessarily going to be the easiest assignment, which made it even more exciting. I still believe so. This team is going to win. I believe that we’d have been right in the middle of it, but we ran out of time. Didn’t win enough games.”
While acknowledging the documented struggles of the starting pitchers and a staff that ranked toward the bottom of the majors statistically, Matheny also expressed his belief that that group will eventually produce “standouts” in the game.
“But there’s a lot of growing pains,” Matheny said. “There’s a lot of growing pains left with the position players too, but that’s just part of it. That’s the road we were going down. Our responsibility was to get in there and compete every day, not to develop but to win.
“Meanwhile, while we’re trying to figure out what winning looks like, they’re going to develop.”
He expressed gratitude for the entire organization from top to bottom, and he called his coaching staff the best he’s been around as far as their motivation and desire to help players improve on a daily basis.
The growth players made during his tenure will serve as “stepping stones” for sustained winning in the future, Matheny said.
While Matheny didn’t use the club’s youth and inexperience as an excuse for the team’s sub-par record, he spoke about his job performance in two different aspects.
He had no qualms about his and his staff’s performance in regard to helping individual players grow, learn and improve on and off the field, and fostering hard-to-quantify incremental improvement in a unique situation with so many players new to the majors.
But he readily acknowledged that aspect is completely separate from the black-and-white judgment of wins and losses.
In that area, they fell short and it cost him his job.
“I continue to have great respect for this organization and the people that lead it, but it’s not necessarily the news I wanted to hear,” Matheny said. “Because I believe in where this organization is going. We took a lot of steps in the right direction to help it get there, just not enough and not soon enough.”