Cardinals manager Mike Matheny commands respect throughout baseball. Here’s why
JUPITER, Fla. — Tony La Russa was under no obligation to pay Mike Matheny such a compliment. After all, the previous Cardinals manager was the one who had just been honored at the St. Louis Baseball Writers dinner in January, not the present one.
So when La Russa closed his remarks by praising Matheny, you knew the Hall of Famer was being sincere. What a compliment La Russa paid his successor, too.
"As long as (John) Mozeliak is GM, he will never make a better decision than hiring Mike Matheny as manager," La Russa told the crowd.
Wow. Remember, La Russa doesn’t dish out high marks easily. When he does, he’s rarely wrong. This was the man who, long before Albert Pujols enjoyed his run as the game’s best player, called him the best player he had ever managed. To offer such acclaim of Matheny so soon in his managerial career bodes well for his future.
Matheny certainly has exceeded all expectations in his first two seasons at the helm. He has two 90-win seasons and has become the first Cardinals manager to lead his team to the playoffs in his first two seasons. About all that Matheny hasn’t had to deal with in the dugout is adversity. The Cardinals have performed that well under him.
Spend time around Matheny and it doesn’t take long to see why the team’s brain trust took a chance on someone who had never managed a game above the youth level. Matheny already has gained a healthy respect within the game, too, as seen in his involvement with the new rule about home-plate collisions and the active role he has taken with the instant replay challenge system.
When the Cardinals visited the Tigers in early March, Detroit writers hurried up to Matheny to solicit his take on the team’s new manager, another former catcher with no managerial experience, Brad Ausmus. Shortly after the session ended, one of the Detroit writers said of Matheny, "Now that is an impressive man."
Here are three other encounters from spring training that help explain why Matheny is proving worthy of all compliments.
La Russa used to focus on winning every series. His thinking was win two of every three games and you’ll be sitting pretty in September. Such a strategy seemed to work pretty well; La Russa will enter the Hall of Fame this summer.
Still, that’s proven too big picture for Matheny. His focus is game to game, at-bat to at-bat, pitch to pitch. This isn’t to say he burns out pitchers and fails to give his players time off. But if he always stresses such a singular approach, so will his players.
For most of last season, he had to answer questions about the team’s historic batting average with runners in scoring position as well as its lack of home runs. His refrain was always the same: Grind out good at-bats and the offense will take care of itself.
The offseason did not change his thinking. What he said a couple of weeks ago about not worrying about home runs was what he was saying last August:
"Our focus is being a productive offense. For anybody to start thinking that we would change our philosophy would be ridiculous. If our team was last in offense, I’d see that there is something there to actually check out. But the approach our guys had was extremely good.
"I’ll say it again for the people who missed it the first 100 times: Mark McGwire was never preaching home runs. John Mabry is not preaching slap the ball softly somewhere where they’re not. We’re all trying to drive the ball, get in good counts and when we get behind, we fight and scrap.
"Very similar approach with both hitting coaches, very similar approach with how the guys execute it. That’s something we’re going to continue to do. If a ball gets into the air and as we’re driving it, it gets over the fence, we’ll be happy about that. If guys get up there and start trying to hit homers and are popping up, you’re going to see a drastic, drastic issue with our offensive production. It’s just a bad approach."
This might say as much about the Mets as the Cardinals, but it surely speaks to Matheny’s diligence on being prepared. It’s about the new instant replay challenge system, which has been used for some games that have been televised in spring training.
The Cardinals were facing the Mets in Port St. Lucie, where the home team was able to watch replays to deploy the challenge system but the visiting team was not. To monitor the game for close calls, the Mets assigned three or four pitchers not scheduled to appear that day to watch the game on TV in the clubhouse. That’s it. They weren’t too worried about practicing the challenge system, which was understandable in a way because the system has been so scaled back in spring training.
Still, it is difficult to imagine Matheny and his staff taking even a practice situation so lightly. Matheny began preparing for a challenge system last season just because of the possibility that something might be coming this year. During spring training, he has challenged calls almost every chance he’s had just to get a feel for how it might work in the regular season.
He has talked about having to change the way he goes on the field to argue calls, how he will have to slow down to make sure his video crew has time to let him know if a call is worth challenging. He also makes sure he positions himself so he can see a signal from the dugout while he’s facing off with an umpire. These might seem like obvious details that could easily be figured out after a challenge or two. But the time Matheny has spent on replay goes to show how seriously he takes every part of his job.
HE’S A PLAYER’S MANAGER
Early in camp, the Cardinals played an intrasquad game where the losing team had to handle that day’s postgame clubhouse duties such as cleaning the training rooms, gathering the laundry and and scraping the spikes.
Matheny didn’t manage either team but still joined the losing team’s cleanup efforts. "It was the right thing to do," he told reporters. He didn’t take the easy way out, either. Matheny assigned himself to clean toilets.
Such a self-effacing act goes a long way in discouraging prima donna behavior in his players. It also offers a reason why La Russa is correct when he says the Cardinals have the right man in the dugout.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.