Matheny era begins at Busch Stadium
ST. LOUIS – Mike Matheny settled behind his desk on a day when the St. Louis Cardinals' past met its future. About five hours before the start of the Busch Stadium season opener, the rookie manager prepared to live another first in a season of many for him.
He had tried not to spend much thought on the day's meaning. After all, St. Louis' season was already seven games old – a stretch spent on the road in which the Cardinals had won all but two to begin Matheny's tenure. He had confronted many emotions since replacing Tony La Russa in November – some eager, some nervous – and he knew managing his first contest at Busch Stadium was part of progress in a season that will test him as a leader.
But his presence Friday in the Chicago Cubs' 9-5 victory meant change had truly come to a franchise that honors tradition each year at its home opener. Throughout a dreary afternoon here, there were many sights that showed an intersection between what the Cardinals have been and what they will become as they defend their 11th World Series crown: Greats such as Lou Brock and Stan Musial were honored before a sellout crowd; the Fall Classic victory over the Texas Rangers was relived in a video montage; meanwhile, Matheny's first lineup card posted in his home clubhouse did not include the name "Albert Pujols."
For St. Louis, this season will be a study in how baseball's youngest active manager – Matheny is 41 – will guide his proud franchise into a new era. Yes, the Cardinals have moved on without Pujols and La Russa. St. Louis' home opener offered a glimpse at the future Matheny will shape.
"When you play a long season like this, you talk yourself into what you need to do," Matheny said. "What we need to do is play good baseball. I want to make sure I slow down enough to enjoy the day and the excitement of it, because this only happens once."
Change doesn't happen often with the Cardinals. Consider: Red Schoendienst, Whitey Herzog and La Russa combined to manage 37 full seasons since 1965.
Matheny now follows that lineage without previous managerial experience in the major leagues. He is St. Louis' first skipper since Ken Boyer was hired in 1978 never to have managed at the highest level. Still, Matheny is a fitting choice to preserve the Cardinal Way.
After all, the former catcher was a three-time Gold Glove in his career with St. Louis from 2000 to 2004. He developed as a professional under La Russa. He is a tie between the history that the Cardinals hold close and the promise for a future that no longer includes Pujols and La Russa.
Yes, Matheny reflects the Cardinals' past. But he also represents their tomorrow, and that's why he is an appropriate leader at this time.
"It's definitely the start of a new era," Cardinals reliever Scott Linebrink told FOXSports.com. "I think a lot of fans are excited about that. They're wanting to celebrate last year and what was accomplished, but we are moving forward. There are some changes in this clubhouse and at the helm. I think everyone is excited to see how that will play out."
Many around baseball are eager to learn. Matheny's growth as a first-year manager will be the major narrative of the Cardinals' season, much like Pujols' unsettled contract situation defined most of last summer.
There will be obstacles involved in Matheny's first campaign, of course, but he has the talent on his roster to compete for another National League Central title. Adam Wainwright is healthy, and Lance Berkman provides power. Carlos Beltran adds depth, and Rafael Furcal promises soul.
But this season will be unfamiliar for both Matheny and the Cardinals. The last first-year manager in St. Louis to follow a World Series championship was Schoendienst in 1965, and he went 80-81. The only other skipper to face a similar scenario was Bob O'Farrell in 1927, and he went 92-61.
Beyond the history, though, Matheny's biggest challenge will be forming his own identity with the job. As with employees in any field, comfort in a role happens with maturity, through trial and error and a willingness to persevere over time.
And with time, Matheny will find his own way to complement the Cardinal Way.
Friday's game marked another milestone in his search.
"Being familiar with the players, there wasn't a huge transition period," Cardinals outfielder Allen Craig said of Matheny. "He wasn't someone we all didn't know. There are still a lot of the coaches who were here last year. The core of our team is pretty much the same. … It has been a fairly fluid situation.
Obviously, there is going to be stuff that comes up throughout the year that will be challenging."
Sure, there will be challenges in Matheny's first year. There will be adjustments made.
But change doesn't happen without discovery. Soon enough, the Cardinals will learn where their new era leads.