Mike Matheny is starting his fourth season as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. But don’t believe for a moment that he is becoming comfortable in his skin.
Despite a 275-211 record, three appearances in the National League Championship Series and one World Series berth, nothing could be further from the truth.
“There’s less of a microscope, maybe, because I’ve been able to weather a few of the storms,” said Matheny, the former catcher. “After being given four Gold Gloves, I still wasn’t comfortable with my position behind the plate in 13 years. I felt like every day was an opportunity for me to prove I deserved that job. That’s kind of how I’m wired.
“I’ve kind of learned the rhythm of (managing) more than anything else. I’ve been able to be surrounded by some incredibly good people on the staff side, on the front-office side and most importantly, on the player side. They make us look like we know what we’re doing.”
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Matheny’s players have a drastically different take on the situation. Without him, they claim, success wouldn’t come as readily. Matheny’s communication abilities, motivational skills and selfless approach are just three of the traits that have enabled the Cardinals to maintain the winning edge enjoyed by Matheny’s predecessor, Tony La Russa.
“He’s a player’s manager,” closer Trevor Rosenthal said. “His door is always open. He comes around before every game during BP and talks to all the pitchers to see how we’re doing, how we’re feeling, which is awesome. I don’t think everybody does that and has that open line of communication to how you’re feeling physically and mentally. He really cares about you as a player. He’s watching everything. He’s always paying attention to detail on every player.”
First baseman Matt Adams called Matheny “the best” manager for whom he’s played.
“He’s cares about his players and he’s down to (the details of) having the best interests for everybody,” Adams said. “He’s just an awesome guy on and off the field. He’s been around the game for so long, and that adds to that mental side. He’s helped build my confidence up and let me know he believes in me. So it’s great having him as a manager. He’s grown. He’s always been smart as a manager; he’s always known the game. He handles the club the right way.”
Second baseman Kolten Wong, who is wired tighter than most Cardinals, gradually is learning how to keep the game in perspective, understanding that failure is a daily occurrence. Without Matheny’s calming influence, Wong isn’t sure where he would be.
“Mike’s been huge in my development,” Wong said. “He’s allowed me to relax. Every time I get down on myself, he’s the first one to be on me and tell me to forget about it. When you have a manager that cares that much about you, it makes playing the game easier and makes wanting to win for this team that much better.”
Matheny sees himself as being in the service industry, although it’s hardly like working at McDonald’s or a tourism bureau. He said building relationships is key, and that entails putting the players first.
“They have to believe it’s not about me, it’s not about any individual coaches,” Matheny said. “It’s about us serving them, and that creates an atmosphere where they want to go out and help each other. And when they help each other, that makes them all better. They’re pulling for each other, which I believe creates a culture that turns into winning if you have the talent. And we’ve had the talent.”
“This is a people position,” he said. “It’s trying to get people pulling in the right direction and keep them pulling in the right direction. Keep them motivated. I encourage and challenge them. I think that’s kind of what this job is, which really isn’t any different than how I defined it at the beginning. I just think it evolves all the time depending on what the need is.”
Matheny said remembering what it was like to be a player enables him to understand what his roster needs and wants to be able to succeed.
“That’s probably one huge benefit: I’ve been in their shoes. I understand the pressures, the distractions,” said Matheny, who learned the importance of putting his teammates first from perhaps his favorite teammate of all time, late pitcher Darryl Kile.
“There’s a bunch of different personalities (on a team),” he said. “I loved that aspect of the game, as a player, about how to go around and encourage other people, see what it was they needed. That was one of the gifts of Darryl Kile. What he did, we’re still seeing remnants of in this organization. It was something that stood out to me.
“They were guys who saw a need in somebody else and got outside of themselves enough to go try and do something about it, which is hard in our world and the world, period. But especially in the baseball world. Everything comes down to you and your numbers, right? That’s how you’re going to get paid. You’re not getting paid by your World Series rings or championships or pennants. That’s kind of just a mindset we’re fighting to try to do things different. When you see it, it stands out.”
Jason Heyward, the new kid on the block, already has experienced the warmth of teammates and recognizes it as a facet of the game that did not always exist in Atlanta.
Newcomers Jordan Walden, Carlos Villanueva and Matt Belisle, too, have surely taken notice. Jhonny Peralta detected the sensation last year, his first in St. Louis. So did John Lackey and Peter Bourjos.
Perhaps it is the Cardinals’ greatest key to their success, as much as the talent.
“Guys coming over here for the first time see that in our players,” Matheny said of the interest incumbents take in new acquisitions. “They see we all want to do well individually, and I want to do my job as a manager. I want to do it real well. ... If we can just get outside ourselves, it creates a different environment, and then – I don’t know how, I don’t know why – those personal goals seem to come along when you have the right mindset.”
If the culture of winning is established, Matheny believes much of the battle has been won. Throw in talent, and the puzzle is complete.
That makes his accomplishments of the last three years far more reachable than they might seem.
“I picture it as we had the talent that should have been (in the playoffs), and if we didn’t make it, then shame on me,” Matheny said. “I think it’s just taking ownership. If guys keep taking ownership right now in doing their piece, then we’re happy with what we’ve done at the end. If we come up short and we’re just short on talent, then so be it.”