By Rob Rains
On one of his first days as the Cardinals’ manager, before anybody could second-guess one of his decisions or complain about a double-switch, Mike Matheny happened to be in his new office as its former occupant, Tony La Russa, was packing up years of memories and mementos. They had time to talk.
While the two literally had hundreds, if not thousands, of conversations over the years, this one was different. Matheny needed different advice than he had ever sought before because in all of their previous talks, he wasn’t the manager.
“He told me the most important thing is to learn something new every day, and I’ve tried to live that out,” Matheny said recently, sitting in his office, surrounded now by his memories and mementos, the photographs he chose to hang on the wall.
Matheny recalled La Russa’s advice in an exclusive conversation with STLSportsPage.com about the milestone he is rapidly approaching – he is about a week away from managing his 1,000th game with the Cardinals. He will be the fourth manager in franchise history to reach that total, joining La Russa, Red Schoendienst and Whitey Herzog, all of whom are in the Hall of Fame.
In a world where the most important result is the one from that day’s game – if you asked La Russa early in the day how he was doing his standard answer was that he would tell you at 10 p.m., the answer depending on the outcome of that night’s game – a milestone like the one Matheny is about to reach can catch somebody off guard, as it did Matheny.
Taking advantage of that moment, however, gave a candid Matheny a chance to open up about what the past seven seasons have been like for him – about the lessons he has learned, the present challenges of his job, and offer a look into the future.
“What I have learned the most is that I will never know enough,” Matheny said. “The game keeps changing, and people keep changing. You’ve got to be fluid and keep growing. What we thought might be right yesterday might not be right today. That just means you have to keep adapting.
“I still every day feel like I need to prove myself to my guys and earn their confidence. That’s something that has to happen daily. I think my philosophy has stayed the same as when I came into this, with the idea being to serve these guys somehow.
“I’m to be a representative of the team as a whole, all the way through the organization, the players and the coaches. I get the privilege, however it ends up, it’s on me. That’s what I love about this position. I don’t think that has changed at all.”
Nobody in baseball history had been in Matheny’s position when he took over the Cardinals before the 2012 season. He had never managed anywhere other than in youth baseball, he was taking over a World Championship team from a Hall of Fame manager, and one of the team’s most iconic players and future Hall of Famer, Albert Pujols, had signed with the Angels as a free agent. At 41, Matheny also was the youngest manager in the major leagues at the time.
It’s no wonder he says now his goal in that first game in Miami was, “just trying to make sure I didn’t make a mistake to hurt our guys.”
The Cardinals won, 4-1, and in a happy clubhouse afterward Yadier Molina gave Matheny the game ball. The rest of Molina’s teammates gave him a celebratory shower with cold water bottles.
“I was really underprepared for situations concerning the infielders,” Matheny said. “I knew the pitching-catching thing. I knew game calling. I had a pretty good idea strategically just from watching other managers what I would do in certain situations but new situations pop up all the time.
“I can’t say I have a go-to, but I go about this differently than most people and have stayed with it. I have really talented people around me and I give them autonomy in their areas of expertise. I have a pulse on what’s going on and I get to learn from them.
“I’m learning from some of the great managers in the game, let alone the ones I played for, and from some of the greatest coaches in the game. ‘Why are they positioning here? What’s the purpose of this movement in the outfield or infield?’ If you are paying attention you’re going to improve in all of those areas while you are watching.”
Along the way Matheny has received more advice, including from long-time managers Jim Leyland and Joe Torre.
“Joe Torre told me to make sure to stay the course, be consistent,” Matheny said, “and not to get caught up in everything that’s being said about our club, and trusting what we see. Trust our staff and listen to the players.
“Leyland is the one who told me, ‘Don’t get so caught up in what you think is a constant in the game because the game is going to change.’ He told me, ‘Don’t be stuck in that ‘it has to look like this’ or the game is going to move past you. Be open to change.’”
When he was getting near the end of his playing career, Matheny started to think about his future, but did not seriously entertain the idea that he might one day manage in the major leagues.
His coach at the University of Michigan, Bill Freehan, predicted then that coaching would be in Matheny’s future. La Russa saw the same skills when Matheny was catching for him.
“I wanted to coach and teach the game, to coach and teach people,” Matheny said. “I was kind of doing that through public speaking, coaching kids, staying involved in the organization. When this opportunity came about it pushed all of that on fast forward.”
As his on-the-job training began, one of the realities that Matheny quickly realized was how much he didn’t know. Trying to accelerate the learning curve was his biggest goal.
“I’m a learner,” he said. “I’ve got multiple books going all the time and it’s not for enjoyment. It’s to learn and to grow whether personally or professionally.”
Every day Matheny gets stacks of information from the Cardinals’ analytics department. He loves the challenge of sorting through all of the numbers, all of the trends, all of the comparisons – and then trying to figure out what to do with it, how all of the numbers on pieces of paper can help his team win a game.
“It comes down to the people and how we can apply the stuff that we are learning and communicate it properly to where it can become an edge for us,” he said. “I really like that. We have a really good balance with our analytics department that understands there’s people involved, not machines.”
It is the people involved, his players, which are Matheny’s number-one priority as the Cardinals’ manager.
“This is a people profession,” he said. “Everybody loves breaking down all the nuts and bolts, the X’s and O’s, but this is about people. That’s truly what I love to do – to challenge and encourage people and help teach. I don’t know where else you could do that with the caliber of people with the talent they have, in an organization with a culture like this. I don’t know besides a job as a major-league manager where you could do that to the level I’m doing it now.
“I love trying to put people in positions to succeed, the same thing with coaches. I love giving them opportunities to shine. I love the idea that no matter how it turns out, that it ends up at my desk. I get the opportunity to stand there (in post-game interviews) when things don’t go well. It’s supposed to come back to me.
“I love watching guys improve. We build something every year, we are building a team. I love the challenge in this particular organization of sustaining a culture. It’s a trust that’s been given to me. That means a lot, to try to keep it looking like it’s supposed to look.”
Challenges of the job
The current abundance of analytical data is one of the differences in the game from the time Matheny played in the majors. While he embraces that challenge, another change which has only served to make his job more difficult is the never-ending presence of opinions on social media.
There were critics around when he played too, and Matheny said he often wondered why people took shots at La Russa when the Cardinals lost a game or a particular move backfired and didn’t work out as planned.
“I knew people wore Tony out no matter what he did,” Matheny said. “I sat there thinking, ‘We are the ones playing here. He’s not doing anything.’”
Now that he sits where La Russa used to sit, however, Matheny’s thoughts about criticism have become more personal in a world where comments on Twitter or Facebook can be cruel or harsh and can come from anybody with access to a computer or cell phone.
Even though he tries to dismiss it, those opinions matter to Matheny because they often are coming from people who describe themselves as fans of the team he is paid to manage.
“There are a very select few in this world who could truly care less of what is said about them, very few people,” Matheny said. “I get it all the time: ‘Who cares?’ You know what, you care. I care, but only to a certain extent. I will say I have become much more callused to where I care a little less.
“I realize also that it’s so important for me to have a solid group of people around me that I truly care about their opinions and I know I’m going to invest the rest of my life in them. There’s going to be people (criticizing) regardless if it’s me sitting here or whoever it is. It’s a divisive position. Half the people aren’t going to like what I do and have may. I don’t even know if half and half is right.
“There are going to be people who don’t like the decisions that I make and it’s a little amazing to the degree that gets out there. I hear it. I can’t say I completely black it out like I don’t care. I hear it, but then I get back to center. What’s my purpose? What am I here to do?”
After every home game at Busch Stadium, Matheny gets a couple of minutes to collect his thoughts before he takes a short walk from his office down a tunnel to where he stands in front of television cameras and answers questions about the game. It is often a painful exercise.
“A big part of my job is to be a shield,” Matheny said. “It is to protect with every word I say. I’ve tried to explain this to people. After the game, as I am walking to the podium, I am trying to rehearse and go through in my mind to make sure I don’t say anything that’s going to hurt my guys. That sounds like it’s easy, but it isn’t.
“I want to be truthful but I also believe in all honesty that the buck stops with me. If there’s something that didn’t happen right I believe it comes down to me. I get that. When I am up there I don’t have the ability or the skill set to have a personality and still be on point and on guard as I truly feel one wrong word could cause so much problems in this clubhouse. That’s my priority. First to represent myself, my God, this organization and my family, but to protect and defend this team and try to hold this together.
“Anytime I say something I’m at risk of messing that up and I don’t take it lightly. When I am with people in the off-season they have said, ‘You’ve got a good personality’ and it makes me laugh. People who know me well, they know me. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. There’s a select group who know me and know who I am and they’re the ones I will be investing the rest of my life with.”
There are only three players on the current roster who have been with Matheny since that first game in Miami seven seasons ago. Molina, Adam Wainwright and Matt Carpenter are among his biggest supporters and will be there next week when Matheny becomes the 134th manager in Major League history to manage in 1,000 games.
“I like his quiet confidence and his belief in his players, the leader that he is, the man that he is,” Wainwright said. “As a baseball player, as a father, as a friend, that’s the kind of guy you want to be. He’s living that out in a way that makes me proud that he’s my manager.”
Added Carpenter, “He’s very consistent in his approach to the game and his players. He’s got a good leadership presence and he wants the best for his team and his players. You know what you are going to get from him.”
Both Wainwright and Carpenter have played long enough to realize that criticism of the manager is something that comes with the job title.
“Nobody is ever happy with the manager,” Wainwright said. “Everybody thinks they can pitch better, hit better and manage better. It’s a lot easier when you are watching on TV than it is doing it.”
Carpenter understands that part of the criticism stems from the fact the Cardinals did not reach the playoffs the last two seasons after a four-year run of playing in October.
“That’s the nature of this game,” Carpenter said. “When you are great everybody loves you and when you are bad everybody hates you. That’s the way it is. We didn’t make the playoffs the last two years and everybody wants to blame the manager. That’s not always the case.”
During the occasions when Matheny does get caught up in some of the criticism, he retreats to find his balance.
“What do I stand for?” Matheny said. “Being able to look myself in the mirror and ask, ‘Did I prepare? The decisions that we made, did we get surprised or were we ready for it? When we responded did we feel like it was the right thing?’ At some point you let guys compete.”
Looking to the future
After his post-game media session, and more time spent dissecting the game with his coaching staff – another valuable learning and teaching moment for Matheny – he gets in his truck and drives to his suburban home.
“I love the fact I live 30 to 35 minutes away because I get a chance to unpack,” he said.
In past seasons, Matheny had kids waiting when he arrived home. All but one are out of the house now, starting their own lives.
“Before I would get home and there was a lot of stuff to jump into as a dad and there’s less of that going on now,” Matheny said. “It’s almost a different phase of life. I get home now and a lot of times everybody’s in bed because it’s so late, so it’s just me and my German Shepard, Thor. He lets me talk to him; he’s a really good listener.”
Being with his family, which now includes a grandchild, is one of Matheny’s releases; the way he gets the daily stress out of his life. He gets outdoors as often as he can, going pistol shooting, or taking his dogs for a run. He also does carpentry work, such as his current project making a table out of some old walnut for his daughter.
He also spends time reading in his faith, and meeting with an eight-man unofficial board of personal advisors, a group he put together years ago which served as a sounding board even before he became the Cardinals’ manager.
“That’s my group,” he said. “They’ve got my best in mind. It started right when I finished playing and didn’t know what I was going to do next. I had these rock star friends as far as accomplishments in the corporate world. These were the kinds of people I wanted investing in me. When I got this job, it became a little more formal. I said I need somebody coaching me if I am going to be coaching people. That’s one of the wisest things I have ever done.”
Matheny knows another decision in his life which worked out for the best was when he turned down a chance to sign with the Toronto Blue Jays out of high school and instead went to college at Michigan. He asked God then for a sign that he had made the right choice, and in his first class in Ann Arbor met a field hockey player from St. Louis named Kristin, who he later married.
Matheny’s family is the center of his world. It’s where he finds his balance, free of the second-guessing critics. He and Kristin know what he is doing now is special, but won’t last forever. They have talked about the future, and what they want most out of their life.
“I’m grateful for every day I have and I love this job,” Matheny said. “I love the position. I love doing it here. Why wouldn’t I? Who gets to do what I do? First to play in the city that’s home for five seasons, now this is my seventh as the manager. That’s unheard of that I know of, the combination of the two.
“This is where I want to be. I understand that there’s a shelf life to all of this, but what a great blessing.
“I am going to love every day. I refuse to do (otherwise) because I did this the wrong way as a player especially early in my career. I was almost looking over my shoulder wondering ‘Is this going to be the last one?’ You wouldn’t believe how long into my career I did that.
“I’m going to put everything I can into it (managing) and not constantly be looking over my shoulder wondering when it’s going to end. I had zero regrets as a player because going through it that way, I don’t know if I had done it any other way if I would have been able to hang on for 13-plus seasons. I beat the odds by a long shot.
“I am going to put all my effort toward loving every day of this and that’s the good, the bad and the ugly ones. I realize I have got to keep my mind focused on what it’s about; it’s about the other people that have been entrusted into my care.
“I know part of my job description is to win baseball games, but it’s really to invest in the people who do the right thing. When I get that right, I can look myself in the mirror and I can go to sleep at night.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains