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St. Louis Cardinals spring training

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny throws batting practice during St. Louis Cardinals spring training on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

Few men can appreciate the intense spotlight on Cardinals manager Mike Matheny quite like the legend who managed him in St. Louis. Although Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa now holds a front office job with the Boston Red Sox, he’s around St. Louis enough to have a pulse on his former organization and the team's rabid fan base.

La Russa knows there is a segment of the local fan base and media who rail against Matheny even though the former Cardinals catcher has never had a losing season in six years as his hometown’s manager.

La Russa offered Matheny a tremendous public endorsement Sunday night at the 60th St. Louis Baseball Writers’ Dinner. More importantly, the man who guided the Cardinals to the 2006 and 2011 World Series titles over 16 years at the helm put in a good word for Matheny with the fan who matters the most.

“Tony said (Sunday) night, ‘Forget about what people are saying about Mike. He’s doing a great job,’” Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said. “I thought that was a nice endorsement from the all-time winningest manager in Cardinal baseball.”

Matheny, 47, is 544-428 with four playoff appearances and one National League title over six years as Cardinals’ manager.

Matheny has often expressed his gratitude to La Russa for bringing him to play in St. Louis, the town he and his wife called home before he began his five-year stint as a player with the Cardinals in 2000.

Matheny has always valued La Russa’s endorsement and opinions, whether as a player or as a manager. Matheny noted that he wasted no time picking La Russa’s brain Sunday night.

They began discussing team-building, Patriots coach Bill Belichick and La Russa’s latest reading list within seconds after they reconnected Sunday.

“You have a Hall of Fame-caliber manager do that for you, you can’t put words to it or a price to it,” Matheny said. “I’m very grateful.”

Matheny is the only man in baseball history to lead his team to the playoffs in his first four years as a manager. As KMOX's Tom Ackerman highlighted that stat to the crowd at the Baseball Writers’ Dinner, La Russa quickly interjected to point out that he missed making the playoffs for five consecutive seasons by only a game in 2016.

“Tony and Mike are close,” DeWitt said. “Tony is a big advocate for Mike. We have goals every year to maximize the franchise’s performance, the Cardinals’ performance. We had a great run of postseasons (and) NLCS in Mike’s first four years.

“It was well pointed out (that) it was really a historic run. … As Tony pointed out when that was mentioned, he missed the fifth by one game.”

Nonetheless, Matheny remains the whipping boy for some segments of the Cardinals’ fan base and among some media in town.

DeWitt heard from some of those critical fans at the final day of the Winter Warm-Up.

“It’s hard to win every year,” DeWitt said. “We make an effort to do it. We’ve had 10 straight winning seasons. There’s been some chatter about, which there always is, with fans and media when you don’t make the playoffs or once you get into the playoffs if you don’t do better in the playoffs.

“There’s always improvements that could be made. I was asked about Mike. I said, ‘Look at his record.’ There was a question (and) there’s been some fan commentary, but by and large he has support.”

Matheny will have a revamped coaching staff this season. The usually stoic former catcher seemed almost giddy about the addition of Cardinals’ great Willie McGee to his staff to work with the outfielders.

He also appears to genuinely embrace the benefits of having renowned infield coach Jose Oquendo back after a two-year absence. Pitching coach Mike Maddux is also new to the staff.

Ultimately, though, Matheny is the one responsible for the field staff. Some of his critics will be silenced only if he leads the Cardinals to the franchise’s 12th World Series title.

Even them, some critics will remain. That’s merely part of the job as a manager in St. Louis or any other big league town.

Critics or not, Matheny has always been chasing that World Series title that eluded him throughout his playing career and so far as manager.

“I’m driven to excellence,” he said. “I think that the wins are going to be that natural byproduct. A lot of like I talked about (Sunday) night, there’s just a way it should look as a Cardinal and the way that this team performs, the way we compete, the way we continue to improve. It sets that bar of what our expectation is.

“The World Series is what we’re paid to chase and what our fans expect. And that’s exactly what we want to chase and what we expect of ourselves. It’s a perfect combination. It’s something that gets us and keeps us pushing through on those days. ... It’s about winning because they’ve seen enough, especially these last two years of us being left out of October. That’s not a place that we feel we should be.”

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Jose de Jesus Ortiz

@OrtizKicks on Twitter

jortiz@post-dispatch.com