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Matheny rewarding Mozeliak's leap of faith Columnist @TracyRingolsby
SAN FRANCISCO -- For St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak, finding the right replacement for former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa wasn't about taking the safe route.

Heck, he could have brought in Terry Francona, who had earned his managerial spurs by lifting the Curse of the Bambino in Boston, taking the Red Sox to a championship in 2004 and doing so again three years later.

There was Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, who has been paying his dues filling out lineup cards in the Minor Leagues for the last six years. And the popular Jose Oquendo, third-base coach of the Cardinals, was a finalist.

So when it came time to replace LaRussa, who ranks third on the all-time managerial list in both games won (5,097) and post-season appearances (14), Mozeliak threw the baseball world a curve.

He hired Mike Matheny, who was then a 41-year-old former big-league catcher spending his time since a concussion-forced retirement in 2006 by working with youth teams and doing some work in the Cardinals farm system helping develop catchers.

"One of the things that had to be considered in hiring the replacement to Tony La Russa [was] finding someone who understood the culture we developed and how things go down here," said Mozeliak. "Mike had been part of the organization as a player [for five years] and an instructor. He had a good relationship with our staff. I just felt he was worth the risk."

Welcome to the big leagues, Mr. Matheny. Oh, by the way, the man who held the job before you is arguably the best manager in the last six decades, a virtual lock to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame for the way he handled a game. La Russa leaves a tough act to follow, having led the Cardinals to a World Series title last October.

So much for challenges.

Here it is, mid-October, and Matheny and the Cardinals are still wearing their uniforms, playing games that count, and in position to defend that World Series championship, something no National League team has done since the Big Red Machine of Sparky Anderson in 1975-76.

The Cardinals earned their post-season opportunity as a Wild Card, just like last year, and so far they have knocked off Atlanta in a win-or-go-home, one-game Wild Card showdown, and they have knocked off Washington in a best-of-five NL Division Series by becoming the first team in history to overcome a deficit of more than four runs in a do-or-die postseason series finale by rallying from a 6-0 deficit in Game 5 on Friday night at Nationals Park to beat Washington 9-7.

Now they are ready to open the best-of-seven NL Championship Series with San Francisco at AT&T Park on Sunday evening in a matchup of the past two teams to win the World Series.

Talk about passing the managerial entrance exam.

"I know there's a high level of expectation with this job," Matheny said. "If I didn't think I could handle it, I wouldn't have walked into the interview process."

Matheny actually came in the back door of the interview process.

When La Russa told Mozeliak in mid-August last year that he'd be retiring, Mozeliak put together a list of "35-40 candidates," which didn't include Matheny.

"I had him in the back of my mind, over to the side," said Mozeliak. "He was the outlier."

As the list of candidates was whittled down, Mozeliak threw out Matheny's name to owner Bill DeWitt, who found it intriguing.

Next thing anybody knew, Matheny was joining Francona, Sandberg, Oquendo, Triple-A Memphis manager Chris Maloney and Joe McEwing, a former Cardinals player who is now a coach with the Chicago White Sox, in the interview process.

"When I called [Matheny] about coming in for the interview, I tried to help him manage the expectations," said Mozeliak. "I told him it would be a good experience that he could get a feel for what the process is like. ... And then he hit a home run."

It was, Mozeliak said, a no-brainer once the interviews were completed. There was no hesitation in taking a chance on the unproven commodity, even with a team that expects success.

"I understood it is a desirable position, but I also understood I wanted a guy who not only could come in and maintain what we have, but someone who would be a part of our long-term future.

"A lot of people might have felt they needed to put their own fingerprints on this team, but we felt what we do as an organization, we do well. We wanted someone who could come in and continue what we had and build off that, not feel he had to build something different."

There was, after all, little fault to find with the legacy left by La Russa, who got his managerial start with the Chicago White Sox and became a household name in Oakland, who spent 16 of his 33 managerial seasons in St. Louis and managed more games for the Cardinals (2,591) than he did for the White Sox and A's combined (2,506).

"In the interview process, what stood out was [Matheny] understood the direction we are trying to go," said Mozeliak.

And eleven months later, Matheny has only reaffirmed the confidence Mozeliak had in the hire.

Matheny took a team that lost its offensive catalyst, Albert Pujols, to free agency, didn't have ace Chris Carpenter until the final days of the regular season. But Matheny never looked for excuses to fail, always pushing for reasons to succeed.

So far, so good.

Now, if he can just get the Cardinals past the Giant hurdle they are about to face.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for

St. Louis Cardinals