Mike Matheny is signed to be the Cardinals’ manager longer than most of his players are under contract, which is highly unusual in baseball’s state.
Matheny’s first four Cardinals teams made it to postseason play, winding up in the league championship series three times and the World Series. The club, in appreciation, has tied down Matheny through 2020. But the former Cardinals catcher, starting his sixth season on the job and his first after a non-playoff year, said, “I take it exactly as I did before. I take it as a one-day contract. There’s obviously some benefits and I’m very grateful. But I don’t want to go about it any different than I have in the past.
“Just like a player, you don’t have a free pass that you’re going to be in there and everything’s going to be exactly as you want it. You just go play the game.”
But the playing of the game, as it were, is only part of the process. The personal interaction between a manager and his players can help make or break a club. In the offseason, Matheny wanted to make sure he listened to his players.
“Everybody’s different,” Matheny said. “You’ve got to figure out how to communicate with them differently. I like people. And I like our people. You just do what you have to do to communicate in a way that allows them to thrive.
“Things change and people change. You just try to figure out what the constants should be. What are the non-negotiables? And then little stuff, like having music on the field for spring workouts. Can you imagine Bob Gibson standing out there with music on the field?
“Why? You don’t need that, but then you get back to is (music) really getting in the way of doing what we need to do? And the answer is no. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have it at the stadium during the season.
“Are there any things we can give on that allow these guys to thrive that won’t get in the way of the non-negotiables? I think it’s pretty simple. You let them think and let them express their opinions. You’ve got to be able to hear some things that didn’t line up with the way you thought they should go. Getting stuck in how it used to be is a curse. (But) I don’t want to be this guy where it’s just a free-for-all around here, which it isn’t. It’s a good balance.
“There are some things they come up with and I just look at them and I say, ‘No. That’s just not an option.’ But you can either be a dictator or someone who really does want to hear the voice of the team because this isn’t ‘my’ team. I don’t think you’ve ever heard me call it ‘my’ team.
“For instance, this was a radical change in how we ran spring training this year with all the different work stations. I think we may have got more work in than in any other year because the guys were really engaged. That probably was a great example of the millennials really wanting to take ownership instead of being commanded.”
It seems that Matheny often is blamed for what goes awry with the Cardinals. When this is mentioned to him, he laughs.
“Part of me thrives on that,” he said. “That’s a great responsibility for a manager — to be able to wear the burden and take it off the guys. But I just got to the point of realizing that winning a popularity contest is not what I’m supposed to do.
“If we’ve been given the right talent and we all put our piece in together, then we’ll be where we’re supposed to be and everybody will be pretty happy at the end. I also understand that with this job that people aren’t going to like every decision. Even if they work, there’s still a group that won’t like it. How do you do it, unless you truly go out and try to please the masses? Then, I get away from what I’m truly here for because they’ll sniff that out.
“If this is about me building up me for the sake of approval, then I’ve missed the whole gist of what I’m supposed to do.”
There probably aren’t many people who thought Matheny would be managing six years after taking the job following the 2011 World Series season of Tony La Russa. But Matheny not only has staying power, he has a genuine affinity for a job that drives many others gray.
“I can’t believe how much I love what I do,” he said. “I love people. I know it doesn’t come across that way but people who are around me get that.”
But there is one down side.
“What I don’t love about it is how crusty it’s made me,” Matheny said. “And it has. I’m always on guard and that does come through to the public.
“I do feel like I’m a different person when I put the uniform on. We say so many words and ... things that were nowhere intended to go in a certain direction can easily go the other way. I wish I could completely let my guard down and be myself and still be able to do my job where I’m a spokesman for the organization and for these guys. I can’t do it.
“All winter, I hear from people, ‘You’re not as miserable as you look on TV.’ I’m one of the smiling-est guys you’ve ever met. But I can’t do my job the way I wish I could. So badly, I wish I could have had more fun when I played. I would have been a better player, there’s no doubt about it.
“But I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how ‘fun’ and ‘compete’ work together. It makes no sense to me.”
Matheny certainly wasn’t having any fun last October when the Cardinals weren’t in the playoffs.
“That didn’t sit right,” he said. “ I’ve never set the goal as just to get to the postseason every year. We want to be the best team in baseball. I feel we have the horses to do it. I feel we have the resources to do it. I feel we have the fans who are showing up that supply the drive. When we come up short and don’t even get into the dance late, that’s hard.”
“The first time I experienced October baseball was like a kid going to Disney World. Last year, it was like something was taken from you.”
While Matheny says he works best assuming he has to prove himself every day, Chairman Bill DeWitt is quite pleased with who he has making decisions for the franchise.
“I think it’s easy to say that if we don’t make the playoffs or we don’t do well in the playoffs to point the finger somewhere,” DeWitt said. “But I think there is more analysis than that. You see clubs get frustrated and fire managers or fire general managers because they haven’t won at a particular point in time with the talent that they’ve had. And I just don’t buy into that philosophy.
“I think you have to look at the big picture and say how good is our talent? How fortunate or unfortunate have we been with our injuries? There are a lot of things that go into it.
“I think we have excellent personnel here that has and will continue to stand the test of time.”
In Matheny’s case, that time frame is 2020. And he hopes to have the same job beyond that.
“I absolutely love it,” he said.