JUPITER, Fla. • Sitting at the desk in his new office at Busch Stadium, St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was hesitant to ask. It wasn't the question that stopped him so much as the ramifications.
He figured that if he gave an honest answer to the simple question -- "How many games did you play at catcher during a season as a kid?" -- it would send some parent somewhere into action. The answer was a big number. He didn't want it to be a big headache for another kid.
"When I say we played 100 games a summer," Matheny eventually answered, "I was catching almost 100 games."
He then offered a caveat.
No kid he coaches would catch 100 games in a summer.
Matheny, who comes to the Cardinals' managing position by way of working the past few years as a coach for high school-aged players, spent more than an hour last Friday talking with this reporter for a story that appeared in Monday's Post-Dispatch. The story was meant to offer an origin of sorts -- a look at how Matheny got here before we spend a whole spring covering where Matheny goes next. Elements of the interview will nourish stories coming throughout spring as he touched on many topics -- one, for example, was what ingredient is missing from some talented players in the system -- but one issue he kept returning to as he described his own upbringing in Ohio as a full-time catcher.
There were things he did -- things he chose to do -- that he would not recommend for today's young players. At several times during the interview, he worried that "some whacked-out dad" would read his answer and inflict the workout on his son.
"I feel it's part of my mission with this position to make some amends for the game and some of the whacked-out views have," Matheny explained. "I'm scared to death that people are going to read this and make their kids catch 100 games in a summer. But that's what people are going to read into it. My dad was so not what this is -- this is what you've got to do. He was supporting me and the passion I had to do it. ... He encouraged us with whatever passion we had."
If you've read the story, you know that Matheny and his father, Jerry, once had a long talk about the benefits of playing catcher and how Matheny should commit to the position if he wanted to make the majors.
Matheny was that life-defining age of 10.
After telling that story, Matheny switched into coaching. He said nowadays he wouldn't let a 10-year-old choose a position and stick with it. Kids should be playing all positions, he said. It wasn't the early selection of a position that got him to the majors, it's what he did years after committing himself to the tools of catching. The better approach for all players, Matheny stressed, is to get experience all over the diamond.
Matheny's early move to catcher was, in part, related his older brother's experience with youth coaches. Rusty, two years old than Mike, was a pitcher, and he had arm troubles late in his high school career because, Mike explained, he was over-pitched as a kid.
"He pitched every game, every pitch, every inning," Matheny said. "My older brother was over-pitched and he really had trouble bouncing back from it later."
That's one reason Matheny treaded carefully as he told his story about not only falling for the game but working on the game.
As mentioned in the article, his dad and him set up a chart that would reward him for time spent working on his swing. Matheny would take 1,000 swings before school and a 1,000 swings after school, and if he completed the scheduled work each week he would receive an allowance. But it wasn't just 1,000 swings. Matheny was a switch-hitter at the time, so it was 500 swings from each side of the plate. And those 500 included dry swings, swings off tee and soft-toss swings off the contraption he invented to flip him baseballs. He also took swings at a basketball with a weighted aluminum bat.
When he was done listing the various types of swings he would take and how much time he would spend as a teen at the tee, Matheny again offered a caveat. It's one that may come up regularly with Matheny as he tells his story and others this spring and throughout his first season as the Cardinals' skipper.
This kind of work is not for everyone.
Doing so won't get you to the majors.
"That's my fear in talking about this -- that this is going to make some whacked-out (parent) do something stupid, too," Matheny said. "It's not for everyone."