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In St. Louis, a young manager leads the last ride of Cardinals legends

Oliver Marmol is in his first season as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. (Aaron Doster/AP)
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NEW YORK — The Yadier Molina-Albert Pujols farewell tour recently rumbled to Citi Field as the St. Louis Cardinals made their final regular season trip to New York with both soon-to-be-retirees on their roster.

In many ways, including their presence, this is a classic Cardinals season, one played under immense local expectations and in a relatively weak division resulting in a winning record (so far). In other ways, this is the most emotional St. Louis season in quite some time, the one Cardinals faithful refer to as “One Last Ride” around Busch Stadium because it is the last time this great core of Molina, Pujols and pitcher Adam Wainwright will play together.

But steering the Cardinals through that last ride is a man navigating his first, a man younger than Molina, Pujols and Wainwright — rookie manager Oliver Marmol. At 35, Marmol has inherited the complicated task of leading three beloved stars, and this era of franchise history, into the sunset.

“He’s a guy who has a lot of wisdom. He knows the game. Knows the game more than what you think,” said Pujols, 42. “It hasn’t impressed me because I’ve known him for a long time, talked to him, and the way that he talks about it. That’s something I appreciate the most about him.”

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Marmol’s bench coach, Skip Schumaker, served under two rookie managers in San Diego. He played for another with the Cardinals in Mike Matheny. He spent the first seven seasons of his career playing for a Hall of Famer, Tony La Russa. He knows what it looks like when a manager is ready for the title.

Schumaker did not know much about the young manager before Marmol called him to gauge his interest in joining the St. Louis coaching staff. But he, like his former Cardinals teammates, knows what it looks like when a manager is ready.

“If you have turbulence and you look in and they’re putting the life jacket on, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, what’s going on?’ ” Schumaker said. “But if it’s bumpy and you look and the guy is just drinking a Starbucks, you’re like, ‘Okay, I can chill out and keep reading my book.’ That’s what I take from him: In big leverage situations, he’s calm and stoic.”

Marmol placed his coffee cup on the bench in the visitors’ dugout at Citi Field before his team’s doubleheader with the Mets on Tuesday. He sat on top of the bench as a group of reporters three times the size of the normal Cardinals media contingent elbowed for space around him, joked that his mild-mannered starter Steven Matz was a “pain in the a--” and explained matter-of-factly that the only thing that really has felt new to him this season has been talking to reporters every day.

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Marmol was involved in many of the conversations his predecessor and mentor, Mike Shildt, had with players or the front office, anyway. He is the youngest major league manager since Cleveland was led by 35-year-old Eric Wedge in 2003, but he had already been coaching 11 years by the time he was hired. In fact, if there was anything Marmol had to worry about in taking over as the Cardinals’ manager, it wasn’t as much proving himself to the players but the fact that they had gotten to know him in a very different role as bench coach — a job that offers more familiarity to players, that doesn’t include owning tough decisions.

“I think it was important for me to come in with no expectations,” center fielder Harrison Bader said. “I’ve had a lot of experiences with him in the past, but a lot of those experiences are because of the position he was in and the manager he managed under. He had to balance multiple things.

“Now he’s been given essentially the rope to do it his own way and see where it takes him. And he’s really himself.”

The Cardinals pride themselves on stability. That’s why Pujols returning to St. Louis for his final season was a given instead of a pipe dream. Cardinals come home. Their president, John Mozeliak, has been running baseball operations in St. Louis for a decade and a half. Marmol is the team’s fourth manager since 1996. One of them is La Russa. The other three are homegrown Cardinals.

That stability is why the front office’s decision to part ways with Shildt in October stunned the baseball world. Shildt had grown up in the Cardinals’ system, overseen their transformation into one of baseball’s best defensive units and most aggressive base runners. As he helped forge the Cardinals’ identity, Marmol was his bench coach. Everyone figured he would manage someday. At Marmol’s introductory news conference, even Mozeliak noted that no one expected him to manage this soon.

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And while his proximity to Shildt and familiarity with the Cardinals’ system do maintain that coveted continuity, Marmol was not exactly inheriting the kind of young, malleable roster on which he could make his mark.

“It could be my son managing this game. You still have to respect that he has the authority,” said Pujols, who signed a one-year deal with St. Louis in March. “That’s why I have the locker room and he has the office.”

Schumaker, who won 2006 and 2011 World Series titles with Pujols, Wainwright and Molina, calls those three some of his closest friends. To the extent that Marmol’s regime needs credibility — and, given his history in the organization, no one suggests that it does — Schumaker offers it with the veterans who may not know him quite as well.

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The influence of those three stars — combined with the experience of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado — means Marmol inherited a clubhouse that doesn’t need to be taught as much as guided, running a team with incentive to win and the expectations that it can do so. That, he said, is exactly the kind of role he wants to fill.

“I’m more passionate about sitting down with a player and talking through the mental side of the game and the difficulties of pressure and failure and how to handle success and sustain success rather than how to field a backhand,” Marmol said.

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When Tyler O’Neill struggled mightily in the first few weeks of May, it was Marmol who decided to hold him out of the lineup for two days and the hitting coaches who oversaw his adjustments. More importantly, it was Marmol who explained the plan to O’Neill, who hit 34 homers with a .912 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in a 2021 season that cemented his place in the heart of the Cardinals’ order.

“That’s what you can’t get wrong,” Marmol said. “There are 27 different mentalities. If you try to approach two guys the same way, that’s where it never works. It’s hard to be intentional with each one and know what they need, even at times what they don’t want to hear and need to hear.”

The Cardinals have a winning record, but not every message Marmol has had to deliver this year has been positive. St. Louis had to send former all-star shortstop Paul DeJong to Class AAA when his offensive struggles became too much for the lineup to absorb, though decisions such as that are not in the hands of a manager. But Marmol has established himself as a straight talker with everyone from players to reporters. He admits when the team needs more from a player. He does not tiptoe around anyone.

“The decisions he makes and the way he goes about it, he doesn’t really incorporate the emotions or the feelings of the players. And that’s not to say he doesn’t care about how we feel. He just understands there is a bigger picture involved here,” Bader said. “That’s good because when decisions are made, it’s very matter-of-fact. It takes the emotion out of it. There’s not a lot of BS. It’s just, ‘Here’s where we are, here’s where we’re trying to go, and here’s how I think we’re going to get there.’ ”

Taking the emotion out of this Cardinals season will not be easy. Injuries have perforated their promising pitching staff. DeJong, O’Neill and others have not produced as they did in recent years. The Cardinals trail the Milwaukee Brewers by four games in the National League Central, though, of course, it’s too early for that to matter much. But as time passes and the farewell tour chugs slowly toward the fall, the pressure will build, creating a fascinating test for a man charged with shepherding a franchise through one last ride even as he takes his first.

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