Stoic Matheny wants to inject fun at camp

February 18th, 2016

JUPITER, Fla. -- Sitting at a picnic table outside the Cardinals' spring complex this week, manager Mike Matheny recognized the irony of his words. There he was speaking passionately about needing to inject more "fun" into Spring Training, all the while trying to muster up the appearance that he was having fun himself.

The latter was a hard sell.

The stoic manager, who publicly scowls more than he smiles, doesn't feign to be of the Joe Maddon ilk. He has achieved what he has in this game by keeping his nose down and his drive intense. But in identifying a weakness of his, Matheny is hopeful that others can offer the levity that he lacks.

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As Matheny officially opened camp on Thursday morning, that was part of his message.

"It's not a strong suit of mine, the fun thing," Matheny said. "I would always have guys tell me, 'If you would just have a little more fun, you'd be a better player.' I don't doubt that, but in my mind, it was, 'If I have a little more fun, then I might let something slip and I'm out of here. So I'm not going to let that happen.'

"I want to encourage an atmosphere that we're going to get our work done and be serious, but I almost push that too far. So we're going to be a little more intentional on figuring how to lighten the mood and let guys be themselves."

Matheny cited ace Adam Wainwright as one to emulate, noting how the right-hander has found that balance between being his goofy self while also standing out as one of the hardest-working players on the club.

"Fun is something I've never had a problem having," Wainwright said. "When [Chris Carpenter] was here, he was that stoic, all-business kind of guy, and we needed that light in the clubhouse -- that fun good cop, bad cop thing going on. He and I did that so well together. Now, it's just become who I am."

Matheny said he fears that other ballplayers hesitate to let their personalities shine because of unrelenting scrutiny. Not so much by teammates or club personnel, but by fans or media members who shoot instant video and photos and disseminate it on social media.

"They just can't let their guard down ever," Matheny said. "I think it's a different situation than we've ever had in the game before that they just can't separate what they do from who they are. I think it's a dangerous place to be, and it's something that I want to consciously create an atmosphere here where they can breathe a little bit."

So how can that be done?

Matheny said he will verbally encourage players and coaches to shed any faux facades. He also intends to implement competition into many of the team's workout drills to encourage friendly ribbing among teammates. The bunting competition that was a hit two springs ago will be back, along with new games. Pitchers, for instance, will track the number of strikes thrown during bullpen sessions.

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It will be a way to push one another while also poking fun.

"You can do that in all facets of life, really," Wainwright said. "Who can eat the fastest? Who can run the fastest? Who can sit down the fastest in the chair? And if you're constantly competing, then it comes natural for you when you get out on the field."

Matheny hopes that encouraging subtle camp changes will also have a payoff. It's part of his trying to script a way to better protect players from wearing thin from the inevitable season grind. This seems a lesson learned from 2015, when the Cardinals hobbled into the postseason with so many players fighting exhaustion.

"Look, I've always been an advocate for having people enjoy coming to work," general manager John Mozeliak said. "If you're having fun at work, you're probably going to be more productive. If guys can have fun in the clubhouse and on the field, I think that's wonderful. Mike has been a part of a lot of successful teams, and he feels like this is a group that does want to smile."