photo: Jose Oquendo, Yadier Molina, Mike Matheny (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports Images)
As the cornerstone of the plan to make the 2018 St. Louis Cardinals a better executing defensive and base running unit than the 2017 edition, long-time third base coach and infield instructor extraordinaire Jose Oquendo was convinced to return to the major league staff.
This move – strategically announced the day before the 2017 World Series opened in late October – was coupled with another hiring that was also wildly popular with fans – the addition of Cardinals Hall of Famer Willie McGee as a coach. Together, they helped ease disappointment over the team’s underachievement in 2017 and foster hope for the future.
While a number of players voiced their support of Oquendo’s decision, as well, there was still an undercurrent of internal pressure raised by some observers. Was the return of Oquendo intended by the front office in part to increase the heat on Mike Matheny?
After all, the manager was already under fire (at least externally) due to his clubs uncharacteristically missing the playoffs in each of the last two seasons following declines in regular season wins. Those two down years coincided with the time during which Oquendo was away from the major league squad, having chosen to work with minor leaguers in Florida instead.
Some fans took it as far as to wonder if Oquendo was brought back to be on the ready should replacing Matheny be deemed necessary.
Even before pitchers and catchers officially report to 2018 spring training camp, Oquendo seized the offensive, shutting down this line of speculation. In a conversation with Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch, Oquendo made it clear that his days of longing to become a major league manager are over.
In doing so, Oquendo removed this potential perception issue of being Matheny’s replacement in waiting – before it could fester and become a distraction for the 2018 Cardinals. This was a very positive pre-emptive strike, in my opinion.
At the time of the 54-year old’s departure, during spring training 2016, the explanation was the need for dual knee surgeries. However, as what was initially announced to be a medical leave of absence continued through its second season, there was speculation that more could be behind it. What is clear is that a personal visit in Florida from President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak and Matheny was the final step to convince Oquendo to rejoin the big-league staff.
Oquendo, employed by the Cardinals since 1985 and a member of the major league staff from 1999 until 2016, had long hoped to secure a managerial job in the majors. With the full backing of Tony La Russa, “The Secret Weapon” interviewed for field manager openings with San Diego, Seattle and the New York Mets in the 2006-2010 period, but was passed over each time.
The misses most notably included the St. Louis job, which opened with La Russa’s retirement following the 2011 season. Another former Cardinals player in Matheny – but one with no professional coaching experience of any kind – was hired instead. Even as what appeared to be Oquendo’s best managerial shot evaporated, he remained loyal to the organization, agreeing to stay on as third base coach on Matheny’s staff.
Three years later, as La Russa was in charge of baseball operations in Arizona, he disclosed his list of nine candidates to replace fired manager Kirk Gibson. La Russa interviewed seven of them before hiring Chip Hale. Oquendo was not among the nine. Whether he was asked and declined or was not included, either way, it suggested his time as a prime managerial candidate had passed.
Last summer, flames of discontent were fanned by a Yadier Molina social media post. It drew considerable attention as the team’s icon proclaimed his longing for Oquendo’s return – though the desired role was unstated. It had followed a negative public reaction by the catcher to a suggestion made by his manager to the media that Molina appeared tired. (Matheny returned to the subject in an in-depth radio interview just this past week.)
Molina and Oquendo, natives of Puerto Rico, are close. This winter, Oquendo served as first-time manager Molina’s bench coach for Puerto Rico’s Under-23 squad, which competed in the World Cup qualifier tournament in Panama and secured a berth.
Skeptics will always remain, some wondering if Oquendo’s declaration is 100 percent truthful, but only he knows that in his heart. What is clear is that he took the initiative to try to get any speculation off the table that he might be gunning for Matheny’s job.
It should not matter whether you are a Matheny backer, a critic or somewhere in between. Unless you inexplicably believe that internal staff pressure would be a positive for the 2018 Cardinals team on the field, there should be no response other than to respect Oquendo’s action to clear the air regarding his intentions.
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