Oliver Marmol was at home in his backyard when he got a call offering him a new job in the only organization he’d ever worked for. It was late October, the St. Louis Cardinals had gone on a near-miraculous, late-season winning streak to secure a wild-card berth, but lost in the one-game playoff to the juggernaut Los Angeles Dodgers. A few days later, the team fired manager Mike Shildt, citing philosophical differences.
Marmol’s wife Amber could see it on his face as soon as he came inside.
“They asked you to be manager,” she said.
Drafted by the Cardinals in 2007, Marmol played four seasons as a utility player, but never above A-ball. He managed in the minors before becoming a big league coach, and served as Shildt’s bench coach for two seasons before being asked to replace him as skipper.
Although just 35 years old, Marmol was seen as a candidate by default and demeanor. And yet, “when they offered it, I still wasn't sure,” he said recently.
His concern was not about the big shoes left behind to fill — even though they certainly were; Shildt won manager of the year in 2019 and was named a finalist for last season’s award a few weeks after the Cardinals had cut ties with him. In fact, Marmol’s hesitation wasn’t about baseball at all.
“The biggest thing for me is, I've seen a lot of people in this seat who lose their family. And I've seen a very small group do this well while keeping their family,” he said. “I better have a really good idea of how to do both well. If I have a game plan as to how to execute that, then yeah, I'll do it. But if not, this is not that important to me. It just isn’t.”
And so Oli and Amber Marmol talked about whether they could balance baseball while still prioritizing their two girls, Riley and Kylie. You already know what they decided. The girls would come meet Marmol during long road trips while at home he’s all dad. Amber told him, “If God wants you to have influence where you're at, then it's not up to you to say no.”
“It wasn’t even in my plans,” Marmol says now.
He claims he didn’t see it coming.
And that he wouldn’t have left the Cardinals organization to be a manager anywhere else.
Youngest MLB manager in two decades
Some people did see it coming.
“I think he was being groomed to be the manager,” said Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals’ veteran ace and Marmol’s senior by five years. And he’s right.
When people in the industry used to ask Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak about potential future managers in his organization, he would decline to offer any suggestions. Not because he didn’t have anyone in mind; but because he did, and he was afraid of losing him. In Marmol, he saw someone with a high baseball IQ, interpersonal savvy and strong relationships within the team — someone with major-league managerial ability, if not yet experience.
Mozeliak has overseen 14 seasons of winning baseball in St. Louis heading into this season. On the Zoom press conference following Shildt’s dismissal, he told reporters that the organization’s “continuity is a strength” and that he hoped to “promote from within.” Less than two weeks later, Marmol had accepted the role and was introduced as the 51st manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.
He immediately became the youngest manager in baseball in nearly 20 years and the only one in his 30s, taking over a team best known for its aging stars.
By opening day, St. Louis had re-signed Albert Pujols for a swan song that would turn the summer into a celebration of the Cardinals’ Cooperstown-bound veteran core. Pujols, 42, and Yadier Molina, who turns 40 in less than two months, are both set to retire at the end of the season. Wainwright will be 41 by the end of the season and is still pitching like he could come back. Regardless: Marmol’s rookie season as skipper coincides with the end of an era in Cardinals baseball.
“He’s young, but this is a guy that has a lot of wisdom,” Pujols said before a game in New York last week. “Knows the game more than what you think.”
He mentioned that he’s known Marmol for a long time. Pujols played a decade in St. Louis from 2001-11, during which he won three MVPs and was arguably the best hitter on the planet. Marmol’s entire minor league career could be contained in the tail end of that span, drafted in 2007 and retiring as a player in 2011 to become a hitting coach in rookie ball. Now they’re reunited and the guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famer fields questions about what it’s like to have someone younger than him setting the lineups that only sometimes include Pujols.
“It could be my son managing this game. You still have to respect that he has the authority,” Pujols said. “That’s why I have the locker room and he has the office.”
But it’s not just the title Pujols respects. “He’s honest,” he said. “You want somebody to be honest.”
Players value Marmol's transparency
“People would probably describe me as direct,” Marmol said. “Like, if there's one thing you're gonna get from me, I'm gonna be honest. It gets me in trouble at home sometimes, but you're not gonna have to guess what I'm thinking.”
Honesty is hard to prove on demand, but Marmol certainly lacks pretension or obvious artifice — except for the occasional deadpan joke. He apologizes for not having a better answer when a reporter asks about what he’s learned in his first quarter of a season as manager, offering simply that he felt prepared from his time as a bench coach. No surprises yet, and he hopes to keep it that way.
But he doesn’t miss his old role, either. The promotion has meant less time to hone in on a particular player’s development or recommend mechanical adjustments.
“Which isn’t my passion, though, so I’m OK with it,” Marmol said.
Later, he expands: “I don't get passionate about teaching the technical side of the game. Like Jose Oquendo, he’s a stud. He'll go out there for the next 12 hours and just teach people how to field ground balls. And, like, I love him for that, but that is not my passion … I enjoy the bigger picture, philosophy, identity, growth — that type of journey — more so than like, ‘Let's fix your swing or let's get you to do this better.’”
Identity could be a big one for a Cardinals team looking to carry the winning legacy of Pujols, Molina and Wainwright forward without them. With their All-Star acquisitions Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt performing at MVP levels and recent call-ups of top prospects Nolan Gorman and Matthew Liberatore, the talent will still be there to succeed in a weak NL Central. But it’ll be up to the rookie manager to provide the institutional wisdom.
“This organization rarely searches,” he said recently. He was talking about the fabled Cardinals Way, how they win consistently by “anchor[ing] to what has worked here for a long time.” When it came time to hire a new manager, the organization didn’t do much searching then, either. Marmol had been there all along.