ST. LOUIS • Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was a four-time Gold-Glove catcher over 13 years in the big leagues. But a decade ago, he didn’t figure his future was in baseball.
He was banking on real estate.
One series of failed investments has now ended that dream. Nine days ago, a judge ruled against Matheny on the project, placing the responsibility for more than $4 million in debt on him and his wife. Interest and court costs could drive the price even higher.
But the saga that could ruin Matheny financially is the same one that brought him back to the Cardinals, and a new career in baseball.
He wouldn’t be a manager now, he told the Post-Dispatch Friday, if he hadn’t lost it all on three lots in the Chesterfield Valley.
“This is life, this is real stuff,” he said in his Busch Stadium office. Then he pointed to the clubhouse. “You walk in those doors and it’s fantasy. Some of the greatest lessons are through some of the biggest trials.
“It’s going to be another shot on my pride.”
Matheny described his story as that of a man who had everything — a loving wife, five children, a decorated major-league career and a 17-room home on 11 acres — but sought more, chasing deals and thrilled by the challenge.
It’s also one of arrogance, humility and lessons learned, he said.
Matheny, 42, has over the past two years come to grips with losing everything.
He sat his kids down — twice — to describe his lost financial goals, illustrate the gap between their debts and net worth, and ask for their patience and understanding.
He sold his estate in Wildwood to pay off bank debt. He moved his family out of the house — himself. It took more than a month, he said.
For a year and a half, they lived with his wife’s parents in Chesterfield. He was so upset with the land deal, he refused to drive by it on his way downtown.
Matheny expects to lose all of his savings, to liquidate all of his investments and real estate holdings — including his childhood home in Ohio, in which his parents still live — and to have to make up the difference with his future earnings, month-by-month.
He said Friday he is relieved to see the end, to tell his players, from whom he has largely kept all of this. “I’ve been kind of anxious to talk,” he said. “It’s been a pretty crazy ride.”
Outfielder Matt Holliday said Saturday that he had no idea of the extent of Matheny’s troubles: “If you know Mike, you can be sure that he wouldn’t let anything like that change how he did his job.”
Matheny said he has no plans to appeal the judge’s decision.
A devout Christian, he wants to do what’s right, pay off his debts. And start over.
‘JUST ARROGANT ENOUGH’
Matheny’s interest in real estate started before he joined the Cardinals in 2000 to be their catcher.
He had been released by Milwaukee and, then, quickly thereafter, Toronto. He was 29.
“I stunk, and saw a bad trend happening in my career,” he said.
Matheny, however, nursed a long interest in real estate, and he started taking correspondence courses while playing ball. “Guys used to give me grief. I was doing homework while we were on the flights.
“I had four kids at the time, and I knew I hadn’t really done enough in the game to just sit back and do nothing,” he said.
The market in the late 1990s and early 2000s was hot. Matheny and his wife, Kristin, who is from St. Louis, settled here even before the Cardinals offered Matheny a contract. They built a 17-room sportsman’s paradise on 11 secluded acres in Wildwood, complete with an indoor batting cage, home theater, pool with a water slide and a private lake with a floating golf green in the middle. Matheny called it his “dream home.”
And he began “dabbling” in real estate.
At first he did well, buying as opportunities arose, often farms valued for their timber, he said. Over the next several years he would buy hundreds of acres in Jefferson County, Illinois, and West Virginia, as well as interest in a Long Island development project.
Matheny spent five seasons with the Cardinals, batting .245 in 622 games, winning three of his Gold Gloves, backstopping the Cardinals to the 2004 National League pennant and the World Series against Boston — all the while buying and selling real estate.
Before the 2005 season, Matheny signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract with the Giants. But his move to San Francisco also signaled the end of his career.
Collisions at the plate and foul tips off his mask led to post-concussion syndrome. He retired in February 2007 with a year left on his contract.
He had earned, during his career, about $18.7 million, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Still, it was a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars elite players earn.
The same year that he retired, Matheny and a business partner, former St. Louis indoor soccer player Brett Phillips, got into another money-making venture. The two used earnings from the fruitful sale of a block in the WingHaven development in St. Charles to buy a stretch of land in the Chesterfield Valley.
“At the time, the market was going so good, it just seemed inevitable,” Matheny said. “Things were really headed in a good direction. We took a chance.”
Phillips and Matheny borrowed $11.8 million from The Business Bank of St. Louis and put together three lots along Highway 40, including the former U.S. Turf headquarters, at 17485 North Outer 40, and 11 vacant acres adjoining the building.
Then the real estate bubble burst. Interest in the land disappeared, Matheny said. “All of a sudden, I realized this could go bad,” he said.
The loans, first due in 2009, were extended by a few months, then a few more, and then into 2010, according to court records. His partner declared bankruptcy. Matheny and his wife personally guaranteed $4.2 million of the debt, including a $1 million claim on their Wildwood home.
Matheny devoted himself full time to selling the land, but nothing was working.
“It was just trying to sell something that wasn’t sellable,” he said. “It was humiliating.”
Worse, Matheny said, was the toll it took on his family.
“It was probably the worst job parenting I’d ever done in my life,” he said. “I was gone more than I was as a player.
“I was determined to do the right thing and make this thing work,” he continued. “And I was just arrogant enough to think I could do it.”
‘A SECOND START’
Just after Christmas in 2009, Matheny gathered his five children together.
“They weren’t really old enough, but they needed to hear it anyhow,” he said. “I stood up there and gave my dissertation: This is the decision I made. This is how things are going. This is where I see it ending up.
“We’re going to need to do things differently around here,” he remembered telling them. “And at some point, it’s going to happen where we’re going to need to do things way different. So we’re going to start now.”
At that point, Matheny said, he was paying $70,000 a month toward the property — more than $840,000 that year.
In May 2010, Matheny told the bank he could no longer afford it.
In June, the bank sued, saying the partnership owed $10.2 million. And in July, it foreclosed on the land, buying the three lots for $4.5 million, which it credited to the partnership’s accounts.
Around the same time, the Matheny family sold their Wildwood home for $1.9 million to an investment company that Matheny said was owned by friends.
Half of the proceeds paid off the home’s mortgage. The other half went to the bank.
The family moved into his in-laws’ 100-year-old, 2,500-square-foot house in Chesterfield.
Matheny had time to move out of his Wildwood home. He spent the month slowly going through family possessions. Friends helped.
Most of the stuff went into a barn on his in-laws’ property. But he lent out some of his valuables. His Gold Glove awards, for instance, went to a car dealership for whom he advertises, to a die-hard fan he met on a Cardinals Cruise, and to two teammates on his kids’ Little League teams.
“And then, kind of out-of-nowhere, I’m interviewed for the job with the St. Louis Cardinals,” he said. “A second start.”
Matheny had turned down coaching opportunities in the past. He had been an instructor at Cardinals’ spring training, a roving minor-league catching coach and a special advisor to the team. But he had declined offers to take on larger roles with the club, including one as an assistant to former manager Tony La Russa.
Still, during Matheny’s stints as a spring training instructor, General Manager John Mozeliak and Matheny would talk during early morning workouts about leadership and team-building. The conversations led Mozeliak to think Matheny could someday be the team’s skipper.
He was interviewed for the job shortly after La Russa retired in October 2011.
This time, Matheny was willing to return to baseball full time. He needed the job.
Matheny told Mozeliak about his financial troubles. Still, he was named manager, with a starting salary of $650,000. He’ll make $750,000 this season.
Mozeliak said Saturday his manager’s personal life did not affect his work with the team.
“He compartmentalized this. I think that is the word he would use. He was able to focus on his day job by doing that,” Mozeliak said. “And maybe in a way that made him stronger. It takes a lot of discipline to handle it the way he did, to keep all that he was doing at the time for his family and still give everything he had to the team.”
Soon after landing the job, Matheny got word that the Wildwood home wasn’t selling.
“They were going to rent it out,” he said. “And I said, ‘This is a gift I’d love to give my family.’”
Now the Mathenys are back in Wildwood, renting. They’ll never own the home again, Matheny said. And he doesn’t want to. He likes the space — but not the accumulation of stuff.
“I’m just craving a simpler lifestyle,” he said. He hopes some day to buy some land, and a small house.
He no longer avoids the lots on North Outer 40.
He said he’s relieved he can now discuss the issue with players. Maybe, he said, his vulnerability will help them open up about their own problems.
And he’s looking forward to the judge’s final decision. He lost his court fight with the bank less than two weeks ago. All that’s left is for the circuit court judge to name the final amount Matheny must pay.
“Honestly, I can’t wait,” he said. “It’s been four years putting a lot of time in this. And the last three, it’s been tough.”
A few weeks ago, he again sat down with his kids — who now range in age from 12 to 17 — and caught them up, this time with a white board and visual aids. He charted out the money trail, explaining what he was once worth, how much he’s lost and what they now owe.
The kids got a little angry, mostly at the bank. But they generally understood, he said.
“I owe it to myself and my family to start anew,” Matheny said. “And, man, that sounds pretty good.”