Cardinals manager began preparing for job during 13-year playing career
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DIEGO -- There were skeptics, plenty of them, who willingly announced their opinion of the Cardinals' managerial choice last November. Following in the footsteps of a legend would be impossible, they said. Doing so seemingly without the proper credentials was a gamble unlikely to produce a positive payout.
Mike Matheny -- a man not of few words, but certainly of chosen ones -- provided little pushback to public cynicism. What he knew -- and, more importantly, what he believed deeply -- was that his preparation in private may have been unmatched.
What he knew, and what you likely didn't know, was about those books stacked in his library. He had been poring through them since his playing days, aspiring toward a calling.
If Matheny was going to lead, he needed to learn from the best. And so he began to read.
He read about leaders in business and leaders of this nation, about leaders in sport and in history.
Matheny's studies were deep. He made them personal. He made them constant. He evolved into a leader.
"I don't think that happens just by wish," Matheny said. "I think you have to be intentional about it."
That's why this job -- one that Matheny recently described as long-time "natural dream" -- fit Matheny. And it's why he has since found a fit in it.
"Even just coaching kids, I knew I loved not only baseball, but being able to impact people," Matheny said. "It's almost a perfect match of what I know best, which is this game and then a heart to help people."
Indeed, a seemingly surprising successor to Tony La Russa, Matheny was, to those who knew him best, not a surprise candidate at all.
His credentials may not have included the typical climb of the coaching ladder, but there was a reason general manager John Mozeliak received very little internal pushback when he revealed who he wanted to fill the shoes of a legend. For those who knew Matheny, the match was obvious.
"One of the striking traits of Mike Matheny is his ability to command immediate respect and understanding of his subject," Mozeliak said. "I always thought he was someone who had a bright future in anything he chose to do."
That's why several years before a managerial opening ever surfaced, Mozeliak began to push Matheny toward this path. Family priorities kept Matheny from jumping feet first into a coaching career with the organization immediately after his 13-year playing career ended.
But even when Matheny stayed away, he really didn't. He coached his kids. He coached other parents' kids. And he kept reading.
"You could see that he would be a leader in whatever he decided to do," said Jeff Cirillo, a member of the same 1991 Brewers Draft class as Matheny. "I'm not surprised that he would be in this situation and not be overwhelmed by anything. I've never seen him out of control off the field or lose his emotions on it."
It would have been understandable for Matheny to have been overwhelmed shortly after the Cardinals selected him as the organization's 49th manager on Nov. 14, 2011.
He was replacing La Russa. He was taking the reins of a world championship team. He was moving into a prominent position in an organization that seemingly had no place to go but down.
Matheny chose not to view himself as a successor. Rather, he wanted to, as inconspicuously as possible, simply push forward a legacy.
"I think it took a unique person to come in here and not have the insecurities many would have had following Tony, who, frankly, has legendary status as a manger," Mozeliak said. "For him to come in and make this transition as seamless as he has really makes you appreciate the type of leadership he brings to a Major League team."
To think that Matheny would fear failure would be to discount how much he is attached to his Ohio roots.
An appreciation for hard work was ingrained in him as a child; he still works as a carpenter, in fact, when he finds the time. His grittiness made him a natural fit behind the plate, where he was harder on himself than any coach could have been.
Cirillo recalls Matheny welcoming the Spring Training drills where his ability to block pitches was put to the test. While other catchers counted down the minutes until they could hit, Matheny prided himself in being there for his pitchers, much the way he feels a responsibility to his players now.
And his toughness was never questioned.
A man who estimates that he sustained 25-30 concussions as a catcher kept crouching behind the plate until doctors told him he couldn't. He once took a Rich Loiselle fastball to the face and never went down. Matheny begged his manager to let him play the following day.
There was something magnetic about Matheny, something that made teammates want to go into the trenches with him.
"He is someone who would give you the shirt off his back," Cirillo said. "As far as the way he dealt with people and the way he went about relationships, he was sincere. He had an incredible work ethic. The pitchers always felt that he had their back. Even if he got shaken off or a pitcher wasn't hitting his spots, he wouldn't show anyone up. He was very loyal, very honorable."
The endorsements that have emerged less than a year into Matheny's tenure as manager are just as resounding.
"The bottom line is that he was ready for this job, whether he had experience or not," third baseman David Freese said. "He's a flat-out leader. He's one of the most respected guys I've ever been around. You want to wake up and play for Mike Matheny."
"You're either born with it or you're not, and he is a guy who can lead a clubhouse and a team on and off the field," added Skip Schumaker. "That's not something that someone can teach you."
Managing personalities is as much a part of Matheny's job as managing situations. Matheny jokes, in fact, about both being full-time gigs.
But when it comes to people, Matheny has mastered the ability to not only be relatable, but to be sincere in it.
"I really do view this thing differently than a lot of people do in this profession," Matheny said. "I view this as a serving position. When you look at it that way, I guess you really don't have a feel if you're doing a good job. Either I have the right mentality, and I'm out here trying to help these guys, or it's about me. If it's about me, I need to do something else."
He is a Christian man with a stoic façade that can mask how much he truly wants others to succeed. He gladly deflects praise, willingly shoulders criticism and strives to make others feel worthy. To Cirillo, that was especially evident in Matheny's ability to relate to everyone inside a Brewers clubhouse that some saw as religiously divided.
"He was the one guy in baseball that could bridge the gap," Cirillo said. "He could maintain his walk, but he also still had the respect of the guy who didn't share that faith."
Matheny remains relatable now. Not only did his playing days intersect those of many on his roster, but he makes a conscious effort to foster a family environment. He went so far last Sunday as to join in on the recent high socks Sunday phenomenon.
It's a small gesture, but one that was widely noted.
So, too, is his open door.
"You can go into his office and talk to him at any single time about anything -- whether it's the ballgame or something else," closer Jason Motte said. "The wins and losses are a big deal, but I don't know if it's from his religious beliefs or his upbringing, but I think he sees bigger stuff. If you have a bad day, he's there to pick you up.
"He's done a heck of a job, and I think every one of these guys respects the heck out of him. We want to play for him."
Of course, it hasn't all been smiles and sunshine this season. There's been a learning curve, some of which has played out in the public eye, some mostly in Matheny's mind.
He admits to having a much harder time leaving behind the losses than he ever did as a player. Now, they trail him home. They cost him sleep. They still bug him when he wakes up the next day.
"Nothing goes away," Matheny admitted. "If you didn't care about the people and only cared about the X's and O's, I'd say it's an easier job [than playing]. But I make a conscious effort to have a relationship with every individual here. That can make it a more difficult job."
Matheny has taken criticism for resting veteran players too regularly, and it took some missteps for him to learn which players would be completely honest about their health. His bullpen management has been questioned. His second-base shuffle and batting orders have drawn ire.
Criticism comes with the position, one that continues to evolve for the rookie manager. Every different situation presents a first. Everything has started as an unexpected -- from developing a routine to determining what to delegate to his coaching staff to dealing with twice-daily media responsibilities.
"One of his strengths is knowing that he has to learn," Mozeliak said of Matheny. "I think he's approached it with that mindset. I think that's why he will continue to be successful."
Matheny's next first is upon him now. He has the task of squeezing every bit of potential out of a club stumbling toward the finish line as it deals with injuries and is slowed by age. St. Louis is a city that expects October baseball. Anything less will be seen as Matheny falling short and likely will send questions of Matheny's readiness back to the surface.
Where those questions won't come, though, is from those who know him best.
"I've never dealt with a managerial change in the big leagues, but I can't see anybody else handling it better than Mike," Freese said. "With the talent we have on this club, with the pressure of this being the St. Louis Cardinals, with the job of filling Tony La Russa's shoes, he was the right man for the job."