MIAMI • After it was over, with the Cardinals defeating the Miami Marlins 4-1 to shatter the mirror ball in this garish disco of a ballpark, the mischievous players went after manager Mike Matheny.
They invaded the visiting manager's office at Marlins Park and dragged him out into the hallway, though Matheny didn't put up much of a fight. His players celebrated his first major-league victory by showering him with chilled bottles of ice water.
"And then we pulled him out and doused him again," pitcher Adam Wainwright said.
Said the drenched but happy Matheny: "The refrigerators are working well in this place."
Matheny had every reason to grin. It was his first night as a big-league manager, and his team's opening game of the 2012 season, all of it showcased on ESPN. And his players delivered a clean, crisp 4-1 win. How does it get any better than this?
Here's how: Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, presenting Matheny with a game ball. Remember 2004? Matheny was the veteran, tough as a railroad tie. Molina was the fabulously skilled rookie, called up from the minors to be groomed to take Matheny's starting job.
Matheny could have given Molina a cold shoulder. He could have resented the kid. Instead, Matheny conducted catching classes for Molina, schooling him in every way imaginable. Matheny wanted to prepare his successor, and that's exactly what happened. Matheny signed a free-agent contract with San Francisco after the season. And Molina planted himself behind the plate for a long and successful term as the team's catcher.
And now, on this virtually perfect Wednesday night, Molina handed the game ball to his manager. "And Yadi was smiling ear-to-ear," Matheny said.
It was Molina's way of showing respect, and affection. The feeling was shared in the clubhouse. In the postgame receiving line on the field, Matheny shook hands with every player.
"The guys all came through and all had something to say," Matheny said. "It meant a lot to them, and that means a lot to me that they care about it."
The players sure seem to like their manager.
"I was thinking about that all spring, getting that first one for Mike, here in this park in the season opener," third baseman David Freese said. "That's what we wanted to do. It was a special night for sure."
Freese helped make it happen with a first-inning, two-out, two-strike, two-run single. (It's still October.) Kyle Lohse was magnificent, getting nicked for a mere two hits and one run in 7 1/3 innings. Shortstop Rafael Furcal smoked three hits and drove in a run. Jon Jay's expert tracking in center field keyed an exceptional defense.
A special night, indeed. The entire day was.
Matheny was up at dawn, ready to go to work, in no mood to reflect, dawdle or otherwise waste time. It was perhaps the most important day of his baseball life, his first official game as a major-league manager. So he looked at video, read scouting reports, studied numbers.
Matheny was anxious, yes. And pumped for sure. But he wasn't nervous. It just felt right. Before the game, I asked him if this was comparable to his first major-league game as a player on April 7, 1994.
"As a player I didn't do myself a service," Matheny said. "I did myself a disservice worrying so much about the game, and everything else. I didn't take the moments to enjoy it. But I'm enjoying this."
Matheny was standing at the edge of the clubhouse, and he gestured in the direction of his players.
"I think about what I have in with these guys, and how prepared they are, how they've handled everything," Matheny said. "I love what I'm doing. I know this is what I should be doing."
A torrent of text messages kept Matheny's phone buzzing and chiming all day. They came in from family, friends, former teammates, baseball contemporaries. They all touched his heart through the bip-bip-bip of texting.
"It's been neat to see," Matheny said. "I have a lot of friends and family and people inside the game that have followed up, just to wish us well, and to wish a good season for us. I appreciate them reaching out. There were even some people I even went to elementary school with. Names I almost had to go look up. But it's been fun. I really didn't think it would be that much different than (being) a player, but it really is. It's been a little surprising."
Matheny's managerial debut had some interesting quirks. The retired former manager Tony La Russa was in the house, watching the game from the press box. And several candidates who interviewed for the STL job were roaming around the Cardinals' clubhouse.
Two were members of Matheny's coaching staff, Jose Oquendo and Chris Maloney. But former Boston manager Terry Francona, analyzing the game for ESPN, was there, too. (No Ryne Sandberg sightings, however.)
When the Cardinals were introduced during the ritual pregame ceremonies, it must have been a little strange for La Russa to take in the scene, given his daily connection to the franchise for 16 years, and his role as a major-league manager for the past 33 seasons.
La Russa recalled his own first game as a big-league manager, after the Chicago White Sox put him in charge on Aug. 3, 1979. The White Sox won 8-5. It was the first of 5,097 regular-season games managed by La Russa, the second-highest total in MLB history.
La Russa was only 34. He remembers how his stomach flipped inside, before that first test.
"I knew I was underqualified," La Russa said. "Other guys who had paid more dues were more deserving of a shot to manage. But once I was given the opportunity, I attacked it with everything I had."
And now, so many decades later, La Russa sat in the first row of the press box on opening night, hands folded, and quietly watched his successor take command.
As the Cardinals trotted onto the field, one by one, La Russa reacted only once.
As if not to draw attention to himself, the old manager clapped as softly as possible when Matheny, 41, bounded out of the dugout to join his 2012 Cardinals along the first-base line.
With that sincere and meaningful gesture from La Russa to Matheny, the torch was passed to the new generation. And Matheny knew what to do with it.
"Just an all-around good day," Matheny said. "I'm not afraid to smile."