The five-page, 2,556-word letter that has come to be called the "Matheny Manifesto" was written in a flash of inspiration and frustration during a flight from New York to St. Louis in 2009.
Several years before the Cardinals hired Mike Matheny to be their manager, friends pursued the longtime catcher to coach their sons' St. Louis-area youth baseball team.
A veteran of 13 years in the major leagues and a witness to countless moments in youth sports that disturbed him, including overbearing coaches and conflict with aggressive parents, Matheny resisted their repeated invitations.
On that flight home, he reconsidered, under certain conditions. Matheny pulled out his laptop, clicked open a blank page and started writing the terms of his participation.
"I always said that the only team that I would coach would be a team of orphans," he began. When he was finished he had outlined goals and rules that he would later call "probably a little radical." Friend and former Cardinals teammate John Mabry took a look at the letter and was succinct in his assessment: "You're nuts."
Matheny invited about 20 parents to his home, so the first time they heard the letter he was reading it to them. Before the end of the second sentence he had already told them, "The biggest problem with youth sports has been the parents."
He described a team without parental intrusion, without the guarantee of winning, and with a distinct, faith-inspired element of character development. He finished the letter, asking whether they could make this "commitment."
The initial answer was silence.
"When I do public speaking events a lot of time I can get a pulse of the room — are these people with me or not?" Matheny says. "But I really had more negative vibes than anything else at the time, even though these were people I knew. I can understand as I'm reading it (how they're thinking), 'Who does this guy think he is? Who made you the guru?' ... Nobody wants to be told they're doing something wrong, especially when it comes to your kids."
One father broke the pause: "Well, I'm in."
THE TPX WARRIORS
The first season, about a dozen families joined and agreed to butt out to let their coach do the coaching. There was one team, the Wolverines, a nod to Matheny's alma mater, the University of Michigan.
More families came, and one team became four, spread among four age groups. Louisville Slugger, a Kentucky-based bat and equipment manufacturer, signed on as a sponsor. And by 2011, the TPX Warriors, named after one of the bat company's models, were born as a club, still wearing the maize and blue, like Matheny's Michigan.
Other elements of Matheny's letter took root. Players must spend part of each practice in a "character study," a classroom-like discussion about topics such as integrity, leadership and relationships. Players are required to volunteer at charity events. This season, about 50 boys played for the four Chesterfield-based TPX Warriors teams. And that's only the teams and players directly influenced by Matheny's letter.
As more families became involved, the letter went viral, spreading from that group at Matheny's home to other teams, other leagues, other sports and other former major leaguers who took to coaching. Matheny says it's rare that he visits a city with the Cardinals this season and isn't asked about his "manifesto," as it became known. Youth organizations from two other states have inquired about the Warriors' organization. Locally, members of the Warriors' board of directors are looking at ways their program could expand because, as an executive at Louisville Slugger said, Matheny's letter could be the catalyst to "reinvent youth baseball."
"We don't have this figured out," says Rick Sems, the regional president of PNC Bank and a member of the Warriors board who has two sons on the teams. "We don't think we're perfect. We're trying the best we can to change youth baseball. This is an experiment. ... We want to put something together that Mike can put his stamp on. At the end of this is we would like to change the tenor and tone of youth sports. I think if you don't shoot really high, then you don't get there."
FIELD OF DREAMS
Out in Weldon Spring, tucked alongside a meandering woods-lined highway, are two baseball fields carved into a farm, and on a late July day the dirt is so baked by record summer heat that it's cracked and flaking like dried skin. Before the players arrive for practice, the farm's owner has hooked a trough of corn to a tractor and dragged it around to lure cattle away. The boys know by now to avoid the gifts the cattle leave behind.
"Welcome," says Brett Dempsey, the coach of the TPX Warriors' 12-and-under team, to two visitors, "to the Warriors' field of dreams."
Michael Kolb, 12, is the seventh generation to live on this land west of St. Louis, and now he only has to walk across the street from his house for some Warriors' practices. His father, Jeff, whose family owns Dave Kolb Grading, deployed the business's earthmovers to level the first field five years ago.
Jeff Kolb said he woke up one Saturday morning and in a bolt out of W.P. Kinsella's "Shoeless Joe," or the Kevin Costner movie it inspired, decided "to build a baseball field." A handful of teams, including the Warriors' four, practice on the Kolb field.
He cleared the crops from about 5 acres for two fields so something else could grow.
"It's not about baseball," Kolb says. "It's great that the boys are playing baseball and that they're coming here, but they're also learning hard work. It really has become about building character, respect, community. They're using baseball as a connection that leads to more."
Beyond taking the game back from overzealous parents, the underlying goals of Matheny's letter were sown into Kolb's fields — using baseball as a tool to mold young men and reminding those young men that baseball is fun.
As a parent who made a profession out of the game, Matheny worried that at the lower levels it had started to lose its enjoyment.
"There's got to be something different than this," Matheny says. "To me, my thought is, let's create something different. Let's create a different standard. The people who are doing the screaming and the yelling, I believe that's how they think they should love their kids.
"Meanwhile, their kids every time they hear that are one step closer to quitting the game. ... The central point is more character-focused than it is baseball-focused. Baseball is the avenue."
'NOT FOR EVERYONE'
Players who seek to join the Warriors have to go through a tryout and an interview. Fees can range from $700 to $1,000 for a season, Sems said.
Parents must read and sign Matheny's letter. Some have declined after seeing the letter. Matheny wrote in the final lines that it "may not be the right fit" for everyone. He stresses later in an interview that it hasn't "been the cat's meow for everyone. We don't have the miracle cure."
Parents and players have left the team after finding the rules too prohibitive or off-putting.
"I was one of the guys who said I don't know if this will work," says Steve Linton, an area banker who was at that initial meeting with Matheny and has a son on the team. "But I realized I'd be stupid to pass this up. ... It's not for everyone."
The players and parents who stay agree to take part in the requirements off the field. Thirty minutes of each practice are spent on a "character study." Coaches have lesson plans, some of which were authored by Matheny, for honesty, fellowship and teamwork.
In July, more than a dozen Warriors served as assigned "buddies" at the season-ending all-star game for Challenger Baseball, a local league that opens the field for players with developmental disabilities. Service is "non-negotiable" for the Warriors players, and some of the charity events take place on days they would normally be playing a game.
That does not mean, however, that baseball plays backup.
The TPX Warriors compete in the Chesterfield Baseball & Softball Association at levels that one league official considered "ultra-competitive." The 12-and-under team went 34-15-4 overall this past season, and Warrior coaches described themselves as "middle of the road."
"It's when the club's mission is to win and be about the club and not the kids that things go awry," says Doug Whiteside, the commissioner of Chesterfield's select baseball league. The Warriors "are a competitive team," he said. "It's clear their goal is not becoming the No. 1 team at every league level they're at. They're more about development. They field good teams, but they're focused on more than the win."
The role faith plays with the Warriors is clear from their name. It has Christian roots. Their logo is a shield with a cross on it. The team does not choose players based on religion and welcomes a multi-denominational roster. But Warriors coaches must make a spiritual commitment, officials said. An announcement on the team's website seeking coaches for the two teams that will be added in 2013 said "potential coaches must have a testimony of faith." Matheny said the organization would not be "apologetic" for its Christian influence.
"It would be dishonest to say that's not where this whole idea comes from," says Casey Cramer, a former NFL player who joined the Warriors program as an official in the past year. "We do teach the boys about God. But we show the importance of living that way, not because of their faith. We teach the boys the why and also the how. In fact, that's a big part of this — to reach as many people as possible, and that means reaching different types of people."
Back at the Kolb field, the boys talk about the character discussions they've had, the work with Challenger Baseball and the tournament they played in Cooperstown, N.Y.
The trips the TPX Warriors take are shaping the players in many ways. Games in the shadow of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A tournament in Omaha, Neb. And the mission to the Dominican Republic. Members of the Warriors joined Albert Pujols and representatives of his foundation on a service trip last fall that included games against children in an impoverished village.
The Warriors returned with new perspective.
Their founder returned with a new job.
ANSWERING THE CALL
Matheny was in the Dominican with the Warriors when his cellphone rang and he had to duck away for one of the most important conversations of his career. Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak was calling to offer him the job as the major league club's manager. Matheny accepted and brought his friend and Warriors' co-founder Mabry with him as the assistant hitting coach.
The time they had to spend on the Warriors mostly went with them.
To continue the Warriors' growing interest in expanding their program and seeding other leagues with it, Sems and the other board members recruited Cramer. New to St. Louis after retiring from a five-year NFL career spent mostly with Tennessee, Cramer accepted a role after reading Matheny's letter.
"It was a refreshing way to look at it," says Cramer, who is studying at Covenant Seminary. "We're trying to build men of character and good baseball players. Usually it's the other way around."
Cramer is working to develop an enhanced curriculum for the character studies and to fine-tune other elements of the TPX Warriors' platform so it can have a broader reach.
The process has already started for next season.
The boys begin meeting with their coaches for service projects to get the boys to know one another and do team-building away from the ballpark. The 10-and-under team had its first gathering Saturday night.The first service project will be this weekend. Baseball practice will start in January.
During an off day for the Cardinals in July, Mabry was able to attend his son's last Warriors' game of the summer. He would later describe the scene at the ballpark as the "pressure-free atmosphere" for both children and parents that he and Matheny wanted.
He knows the potential difference one letter can launch: Change three leagues, several teams per league, 12 kids per team and that's "when you start impacting the bigger numbers. That's when you put the fun back in sports," he says.
Mabry stood beside the bleachers during his son's last game. He clapped for a hit. He nodded when his son made a slick play in the field. And he hung back, letting the coaches coach all the way through Dempsey's gathering the team for some closing remarks after their loss.
"Be a Warrior all the time, not just here," Dempsey said, kneeling down with his players. "Don't ever stop being a Warrior. From now when you're 12 years old until you're 112 years old, be a Warrior."
He drew the team close for their last cheer, thanked the boys for a good season, and then wouldn't let them scatter for the offseason without one more requirement. It was time to return to the people who let them go.
"Now," Dempsey said. "What's the last thing we always do?"
The boys answered in unison.
"Thank our parents!"