Matheny extension matches a top young skipper with top young talent

ST. LOUIS — Like anyone embarking on a new career, Mike Matheny didn’t know how he would take to managing when the St. Louis Cardinals hired him two years ago.

But he knows today.

“I can’t imagine doing anything that I enjoy more than what I am doing right now,” Matheny said.

For the next 25 years even?

“Unless something drastically changes my mind,” he said.

Like any company hiring someone with zero experience, the Cardinals didn’t know how Matheny would take to managing either, especially with him having to replace a future Hall of Famer in Tony La Russa.

But they know today. They believe they know, anyway.

The Cardinals showed their belief in Matheny by rewarding him with a three-year extension that was announced Wednesday afternoon. When added to the 2014 option that was picked up last spring, the 43-year-old former catcher now is under contract with the Cardinals through 2017. Such a commitment says a ton in a time when only seven managers have been with their present team for more than four consecutive seasons.

 “As I think most of you know, I’ve always taken the position that the best way to operate a franchise and maintain continuity is to maintain the core personnel responsible for our success,” owner Bill DeWitt Jr. said. “Mike certainly is a core piece of our success. I look forward to him continuing with us for many years.”

Blow this off as happy talk if you wish. After all, Matheny hasn’t even led the Cardinals to a single World Series championship. He’s picked the wrong pitcher, made out the wrong batting order and called for the bunt too many times. Or some will say.

But this really is a win-win. Matheny benefits from the greatest job security he’s enjoyed in his baseball career, and the Cardinals can rest easy knowing they have locked up one of the game’s top young managers to guide some of the game’s greatest young talent.

Make no mistake. Matheny is a top young manager, and not because he is one of only eight managers in history to take his team to the playoffs in his first two years. Even those who gripe about his in-game strategy — which means virtually all of us at one time or another — can’t deny that Matheny has proven to be every bit the strong leader the club believed he would be. In today’s game, keeping the clubhouse tight and right is considered at least as important as tabbing the right pinch-hitter.

When Matheny says he wants to “prepare them for success in every facet of their life,” you can believe him. While he always was quick to credit the veterans for their roles in integrating 20 rookies into the clubhouse, don’t forget who was influencing the veterans. He came into managing with the players’ respect, earned from how he approached his job as a player and the toughness he displayed.
The only time any of his players have doubted him publicly was when Adam Wainwright, in the heat of the moment, voiced his objections to being pulled earlier than he thought he should. And Wainwright apologized the next day.

“Mike Matheny is my leader and one of my mentors in life,” Wainwright said. “I love that man. … I have as much respect for him as anyone in the world.”

No wonder Matheny believes he has found his calling. Most former players who go into managing say they’ll always prefer playing, but he’s different. Though he won four Gold Gloves, played in a World Series and lasted 13 seasons (before concussion symptoms cut short his career), Matheny sounds like a man who’d rather be leading his team from the dugout than from behind the plate.

“The thing that I like more about this job is that it is less about me and more about the players,” he said. “This is an opportunity for me to take 25 guys and a support staff and try and figure out how to get us all going together. The more I can get out of the way and elevate them, the better.

“As a player, you have a certain responsibility to take care of yourself. But to me, I love watching how these guys grow and prosper and figure out ways to put them in positions to succeed. That’s how I’m wired.”

Working in his adopted hometown for a model franchise stocked with as much talent as any in the game, Matheny could not be in a better place. And he should stay there for a long, long time.

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