Matheny's selfless approach a perfect fit for Cardinals
Former St. Louis catcher has put his players before himself, and they've responded
ST. LOUIS -- In the years after concussions prematurely ended his playing career, Mike Matheny began to ponder possible future pursuits. It was in that thought that Matheny found a key piece of clarity.
He did not know what he was going to do. He only knew how he was going to do it.
Matheny dabbled in other business ventures between the time his playing career ended and the Cardinals offered him a managerial job. But largely, he consumed himself in learning more about a servant-leadership model that had long intrigued him. Think of it as a hierarchy structure in which the pyramid is flipped upside down.
Matheny read books about the concept. He conversed with leaders of large local corporations, who already subscribed to the model. They gave him more books to read. The benefits of the model -- one in which the leader chooses to serve, not to rule, by putting others first -- were immediately obvious to Matheny.
That's because they were familiar.
"It struck me that I had done some of this as a leader in a catching role," Matheny said. "Out there in the clubhouse, I wasn't more important than anyone else. But as a catcher, there is more responsibility, more people you have to work with. My whole point of being in that uniform was to make my pitchers' job easier and to make them better. That's really what kept me around."
Convinced that the model would work in any sector, Matheny promised himself that he would adopt it once he settled on what to do next. It was during his ongoing studies that the Cardinals called, and he accepted the new career direction. Matheny believed managing would offer him the perfect platform from which to put the servant philosophy into practice.
"This model takes nothing away from how you compete," Matheny said. "But it just creates an atmosphere where you make other people better. When you make other people better, and you set your mind on how to focus on someone outside yourself, you create something pretty special."
It was early in Matheny's first Spring Training as manager when he sought out Mitchell Boggs, looked him in the eye and convinced Boggs that he believed in his ability. Matheny told Boggs that he had the talent to be great, which is why he planned to give the right-hander a key late-inning role.
Boggs went on to lead the National League in Holds (34) and rank sixth with a 2.21 ERA. Teammates later said they saw a direct connection between Boggs' 2012 emergence and that February conversation.
"Mike has a way with words," Wainwright said. "He's an uplifter. He's an encourager. From a moment of weakness where you begin to doubt your ability or question your role on the team, then you have the guy who is putting out the starting lineup every day tell you that you have a place and that you don't have anything to worry about. All of a sudden, you're confident and get right back in a rhythm."
It is not a foolproof formula, of course, as Boggs' 2013 troubles reinforced. But this idea of loyalty and the execution of a model that emphasizes positive reinforcement have thus far been distinguishing characteristics of Matheny's two-year managerial tenure.
He gave Boggs every opportunity to right himself after a disastrous start to the season and tried the same recently with Edward Mujica. In a move that was widely criticized publicly, Matheny sent Mujica to the mound for a save situation in Milwaukee on Sept. 20. He saw the risk, but also believed in the greater reward.
"We are one pitch away from potentially getting our closer in a good frame of mind," Matheny said. "Is that a good risk to take? Absolutely. In my mind, that is the right thing to do."
That's why Matheny stuck with Lance Lynn when all was going wrong in August. It is why, upon meeting John Axford after a late-season trade, he reminded the former Brewers reliever that he still had that 2011 potential. It's why Matheny has shown such little hesitancy in thrusting young players into critical roles.
He believes whole-heartedly in the organizational process. And he believes deeply in his players.
"It's not something that I put on my list, that I need to be loyal to these guys," Matheny explains. "What's at the top of my list is to do the right thing. That's really what I've tried to do. You're always risking by going against how something might appear, but we always realize the potential reward."
Matheny has been intentional in creating an environment where his door would always be open and his conversations concern as much the personal as the professional. He makes it a point to ask about families and faith, hoping that through it all, players see him on the bottom of that inverted-pyramid model.
This approach is what veterans and rookies alike have credited for the smooth assimilation of so many young players this season. Anticipating that the big league club would get substantial contributions from its up-and-coming prospects -- though certainly not expecting to use as many rookies (20) as they have -- Matheny set the groundwork for their arrival during his Spring Training conversations.
"I didn't know him that well, but he showed an effort to get to know the guys during camp," said rookie Seth Maness, a non-roster invitee in Spring Training. "Even when we would get sent back down, he would call us in and talk to us and be very professional. He made it seem possible that you could get back up here soon."
"I know a lot of people don't put much value in it, but to me, I spend a lot of Spring Training trying to build a rapport and a relationship with these guys," Matheny explained. "One, it's the right thing to do. And if we can get the communication going where I understand them and they understand me, then they feel a little more comfortable when they show up. That gives them a better chance to just do what they need to do."
What those rookies have done is pick up 36 wins, make 52 starts and take over the roles of closer and cleanup hitter after late-season adversity hit. The culmination was the Cardinals' first division title since 2009, a year in which the organization had just 10 starts from rookies.
"He was the perfect fit for this job and the transition that this team was going through," Chris Carpenter said of Matheny. "Again, I don't think you could have done any better job with these young kids and controlling the veterans and putting them both together to go out and get the best out of all of us. He should be rewarded for that and acknowledged for that. He's done a fantastic job."
The journaling, like the absorption of his leadership model, came long before Matheny assumed Tony La Russa's chair. Matheny once read a John Adams biography that detailed miles of microfilm of letters that Adams and his wife, Abigail, left to their children. That spurred Matheny on to create a journal for each of his five kids.
He keeps his own personal one, too.
Then, there are the pages and pages of baseball notes -- some in the notebooks he carries around, others digitally saved on an iPad. Some entries are a few sentences in length. Some are paragraphs long. Matheny keeps them for future reading and reflection.
He has chosen to refrain from revisiting his 2013 entries until the season closes.
"I really don't want to," Matheny said. "We live so much in yesterday that up until I get here [at the ballpark] to get my workout in, I'm still living in yesterday. I think you have to have that separation that that's gone, now what do I have to do? I don't think it's time to reflect yet."
When Matheny does take the time to absorb the significance of this season, perhaps he'll recognize his place in it. Though quick to deflect praise and content in shouldering fault, Matheny should also be credited with preserving an organizational culture while achieving at a high level.
He is the first Cardinals manager since Gabby Street in 1930-31 to lead the team to the postseason in his first two seasons. Outside of Street and Matheny, only nine other Major League managers have matched that level of immediate success.
"I feel like he's done a very good job, especially given the roster he's had to work with," general manager John Mozeliak said. "It's been an unusual year with injuries. We've certainly had to go with a younger team. But I think the way he has managed that and the environment that he has created, he's done an outstanding job."
Certainly, Matheny had the benefit of stepping into a favorable situation. It's rare for rookie managers to assume the reins of a team coming off a World Series championship. But that didn't mean that everything was stable.
Last year, Matheny helped usher the organization through some key departures. This season featured regular doses of adversity, the byproduct of which was a larger-than-anticipated reliance on young talent. All the while, though, Matheny strove not to stray from service, and he's proud of the environment that has fostered.
"When I have people from other very respected organizations, who have been around the game a long time, tell me that this group as a whole is representing themselves in a way that's different but in a positive way, that makes me proud," Matheny said. "I told this to [owner] Bill DeWitt that there is a culture here, and a long-standing expectation with the Cardinals, that people have high talent, are highly motivated, are driven to excellence, but also they are people that care to do things the right way."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.