Leadership in Baseball Heaven

Like many Americans of late, I’ve come to view leadership the same way I view Bigfoot. I can’t deny it’s possible existence, but evidence for it has been slim in recent times. But rather than pile more criticism on our political representatives, I thought it worth nothing a context in which leadership means something quite different—and actually works.

Two years ago, Mike Matheny was hired to do the impossible: replace future Hall of Famer Tony LaRussa as the St. Louis Cardinals manager. Matheny inherited a team that had won the World Series the previous year and a mountain of expectations for continue success. Among the things he did not inherit were the Cardinals’ best player (Albert Pujols) and best pitcher (Chris Carpenter) of the last decade.

Immediately after his hire, Matheny began to put his deeply held leadership principles to work. His model was an inverted pyramid, in which the leader takes a servant-like attitude toward the organization. Much like Tito Francona in Cleveland, he approached his players with humility, and he showed that he cared for them as individuals, not just as ballplayers.

Baseball Heaven, from a Cardinal fans' perspective.

Baseball Heaven, from a Cardinal fans’ perspective.

That is not to say that Matheny is a pushover. His standards are exacting, and his players an dco-workers both love and highly respect him. Jenifer Langosch has plenty more to say about this in her piece on MLB.com that summarizes the Cardinal manager’s approach as his team enters the playoffs.

The spotlight piece on Matheny has me asking a few questions. If this put-others-first leadership style works so well, why don’t more people put it into practice? If his team hadn’t been successful, would his style still be praised? And since this kind of leadership is so biblically based (see Matthew 20:24-28), why don’t we see more of it in church—particularly among clergy?

I’m fairly sure there are no easy answers to my questions. For one thing, Matheny has the luxury of focusing most of his attention on a small group of about 40 players and 10 or so coaches. On top of that, he already has tremendous leverage in his context because of the players’ desire to both win and reap the lucrative financial benefits of MLB success. And he works in an organization whose goals and methods are consistent across every level.

Still, I can’t help but think Matheny’s ideas of leadership should translate better into other sectors as well. I also can’t help but wonder if we as followers shouldn’t take a closer look at who we entrust with leadership, and what kind of power we will afford those people. Is it too much to ask that our political representatives keep the common good of real people in mind, rather than pandering to ideologies that have little link to reality? Is it crazy to think that our religious leaders should approach their task more like Jesus did, with humility and genuine concern for others?

I don’t think so—especially for us Christians. Perhaps if we as followers reframed our expectations of leaders, they would behave differently. Perhaps if, when we find ourselves in leadership positions, we tried to emulate Christ’s posture toward those he led, we would act in a manner worthy of the authority invested in us. I would love for us to band together and find out.

In the meantime, as Washington’s processes crumble and public opinion wars rage on, I’ll quietly celebrate what’s happening in what Cardinals fans consider Baseball Heaven. Hats off to a servant and leader who keeps each of those roles in appropriate proportion.

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