Matheny learned, excelled first year as manager
ST. LOUIS - Mike Matheny hasn’t had much time to sit and reflect on his recently completed first season as a big league manager. But the Cardinals skipper plans to do that soon, hopefully in a deer stand somewhere within America’s wilderness.
By that point, Matheny will hopefully be able to find the positives from a season that finished in heartbreak and disappointment. The first year manager looked the part at times, but overcame an unfair amount of injuries and expectations to lead the Cardinals within one game of a trip to the World Series.
The odds were against Matheny from the start. Taking over a team that just won their 11th World Series Championship less than a month earlier, he also had to replace a future Hall of Fame manager in Tony La Russa – and do it without Albert Pujols, a St. Louis staple since his arrival to the big leagues in 2001.
It looked rough at times, including a 15-24 stretch in May and June that took the Cardinals from 3.5 games up in the Central Division to four games back. But Matheny kept his calm demeanor, kept writing in his journal to “just keep going” and eventually guided them out of their funk and into the playoffs.
The Cardinals won the second wild card spot in the National League and won a pair of winner-take-all playoff games in the opposing team’s stadium to advance to their seventh NLCS since 2000. And they went up 3-1 in the series before losing three games in a row to suffer an unwanted and undeserving finish to what was otherwise an impressive story of overcoming adversity and not giving in.
“I think he did a tremendous job,” said general manager John Mozeliak. “Being able to take this team and have the success it had is a great compliment to him and his staff. I especially say that given the turbulent times we went through in May and June. It could have easily gone the other direction. Instead he kept to his plan, stayed discipline and rode it out and obviously we had success.”
Matheny entered the season as baseball’s youngest and most inexperienced manager. Aside from his son’s little league team, Matheny had no prior coaching experience. He had worked as the organization’s roving catching instructor and served as a guest coach at spring training a few times, but taking over as manager of a Major League team was completely different.
And he handled it like a veteran. Sure some fans complained when they felt he was sitting too many regulars on the same day or when they thought he had his players bunt too much. But Matheny had a plan, and a vision. It wasn’t about a single game in April or June. It was about “achieving greatness” by season’s end, which the Cardinals did by finishing just one win short of a second straight trip the Fall Classic.
“I think we had an entertaining season,” Matheny said. “I know it was emotionally draining and I do have to say that as a review of the season, I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a team that had so many gut-wrenching games. Not just the close ones, but the crazy stuff all season long. But I believe that build character which was kind of displayed at the end.
“These guys played hard and they were fun to watch and they were exciting. We were right there.”
Matheny was hired from a pool of candidates that included Terry Francona, Ryan Sandberg, Jose Oquendo, Chris Maloney and Joe McEwing. He was the least experienced of the group but chosen in part because of the leadership skills he showed during his 13-year big league career as a catcher.
Flying by the seat of his pants, Matheny sought the advice of several former big league managers heading into his first season. Some of their suggestions worked, and some didn’t. He started the year reading every story and listening to every comment made about his team before deciding that wasn’t the best way to spend his time.
But one of Matheny’s best ideas came on his own. He began writing postgame notes in a notebook he used to make his lineups. Moments after each game ended, he would write what went wrong and what went right, hoping to learn from each experience should a similar one arise in the future.
When the Cardinals played a team again later in the season, he could look back and see the lineup used that day and what went right or wrong during the game.
“There were times throughout the season I would have been an idiot not to look at, ‘I did this and it didn’t work, what could I have done differently,’” Matheny said. “If you call it second guessing, I guess that’s what its called, but to me that’s the only way you learn is to look at your mistakes you made and make the adjustment or have a real good reason why you did what you did and support the fact you made the decision you did. I don’t know any other way to learn.
“It just sort of came along as I went through the season. Sometimes it was only three or four sentences that just summarized the game and other times it was longer paragraphs. That was nothing I heard from anybody else, just something I pulled together.”
Matheny plans to look back through his notes often this winter as he prepares for his second season as a big league manager. He’s already looked back some in the short time since the season ending, noting about their skid in May and June that, “The comment I would write down and make to myself is just keep going, this is not a time to let anybody panic. If that happens, that’s when things start falling apart and were not going to do that. The message stayed pretty consistent.”
And for those evaluating his first season, it was hard to find many flaws. Aside from the occasional pitching change that backfired or his teams lack of execution on a number of key bunt plays, Matheny got the most out of his team.
“The biggest unknown was how he would handle the X’s and O’s of handling a game,” Mozeliak said. “Clearly he never had that experience, not at the big league level, not at the minor league level, so that was the unknown.
“I thought he was very impressive all the way across the board.”
Armed with a book full of notes, a year of experience and a talented group coming back, Matheny should be an even better manager next season. And the Cardinals should be pretty darn good as well.