In the Hot Seat: Mike Matheny
The St. Louis Cardinals' new manager on what he learned from Tony La Russa
Photograph by Scott Rovak
The name of Mike Matheny’s foundation is “Catch 22,” but the title to the next chapter in his life might be “Great Expectations.” When the Cardinals’ 41-year-old skipper fills out his first major-league lineup card April 13, it will be on the heels of a World Series win and a future Hall of Fame manager’s departure. That’s not to mention the off-season departures of Albert Pujols and pitching coach Dave Duncan. With such large shoes for Matheny to fill, Cardinals Nation hopes he’ll be a quick study.
I read that you filled up countless notebooks in the off-season. What were you like as a student in college?
It wasn’t something that came easy to me; I had to work. I had roommates who showed up and half-slept through class and aced the test without ever taking a note or studying. But that wasn’t the way I’d go about it.
What did you learn from your “reconnaissance work,” in watching La Russa last year?
He’s always gone above and beyond, and never wanted to be outworked. I had a lot of that in myself, in the way I had to go about the business because I wasn’t talented enough to do it another way and I always knew if there was an opportunity to my effort in, I knew it would pay off.
What was the most important thing you learned from La Russa when you were a player?
First, don’t give up on people. He had every reason in the world not to let me on the team the first year. He saw something that he and Dave Duncan liked. I was awful and didn’t deserve to make that team, but they looked beyond the performance and thought the makeup would fit. Five years later, I was still playing for him and had been to a World Series. After that, I tried to sponge up everything I could get. You knew you were in the middle of a Hall of Fame-caliber career, not really at the time thinking, “I want to watch him because I want to manage someday.” To learn this game, you have to watch the people who’ve done it successfully—that was really more of the philosophy.
And what did La Russa tell you after you got the job?
“Trust your gut, don’t cover your butt.” It’s funny because Spags put that in the paper not too long ago, after he was let go. It was interesting that that’s what stuck out to him, because it absolutely stuck out to me. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that because you may have some tendencies to want to cover yourself instead of trusting what you really know is right.
Everyone’s talked about you being the youngest manager in the league. What’s the upside to that title?
I’m not sure I’m in a position to do a sales job. Really, that’s yet to be determined. The upside, to me personally, is that I know this organization had something in mind it was looking for when it was trying to fill this position, and I know it had to do with leadership, and it was a great compliment when we had those discussions even during the interview process that this is a leadership position, and they saw that I fulfilled that role while I was a player and the work and the preparation and the intelligence and the emotional intelligence to try and read people, things that I did as a player. So how that translates into wins—I’m not a forecaster. What I do know that I bring to the table regardless of age is that I have a passion for excellence and demand that of myself and the staff, and that translates into the expectations of the players. Then I’m a people person that tries to make other people better and put people in a position where they’re going to succeed. So all of the above, I guess, is that sales pitch that I said I didn’t have.
You’re good friends with some of the players. Is there a danger in being so close?
For me, the ones I had played with were Albert and then Carp and Yadi. But it wasn’t as if all of a sudden I texted them and told them to start calling me sir… The thing that I heard from almost everybody I talked to—and I talked to Hall of Fame managers and current managers and NFL coaches and everyone in between—all of the wise ones said, “Just be yourself.” For me, when I get in front of Carp or Yadi, I am myself. Fortunately, we’ve had those kind of relationships where it never was, “Hey, we’re going to hang out for a while.” It was, “What’s going on in life, and how can we get through this thing, and how can I help you?” That’s the way I was wired as a player, and I’m not trying to redo that right now.
Whitey Herzog also was known for being friends with players. What was his advice to you?
We sat down, and we talked on the phone. I love some of Whitey’s philosophies. He has a steel trap for a mind: He remembers dates and times and what the temperature was during the story. But it’s such a good baseball mind. And it’s also good to have some different styles and personalities when you’re talking to managers about, “How did you go about this?” You take it all in, and I haven’t gone into any of these meetings saying, “This is the guy I’m going to copy.” I don’t think that’s right. But it’s more information-gathering: “How did you set this up?” Or “What was your thought philosophy about this period of time in your life?” It’s just been incredible to hear how similar the ways they think and that I think are, and also to take in some things that I had never thought about or heard of before. So I toss them around against what I know and believe to be true. It’s been very challenging, but also very rewarding.
La Russa once said you’re the only player he’d ever let date his daughter date. Did you ever joke about taking him up on the offer?
[Laughs] No, the reason he said that is he knew I had five kids and I’m happily married to my beautiful wife. And now that I have a daughter of my own, I know how crazy he is for saying that because I’ll never ever give my blessing to any player—or anybody else for that matter. She’s only 16, so his daughter was a little older, and I guess he was in a little different phase. But I think he’s passed that torch on to [David] Freese. So now David has the pressure of wearing that hat.
Do you think being a catcher prepared you for the criticism that comes with being under the microscope as a manager?
I know I’ll be under a microscope with every move I make and don’t make. As a catcher, part of your job is a deflector—whether the pitcher does his job or doesn’t do his job, it’s a catcher’s job to jump in there and take the heat for him. So there’ve been times when I’ve been sacrificed, and I didn’t necessarily need to be. But I really enjoyed that position because I knew what it did and wanted the chemistry with the pitcher, the staff, and the team. But I don’t really think too much about that because I have a job to do. And what I do know is that if I’m prepared—which I completely plan on being—and I do trust what my instincts tell me, and I’ve got everybody else around me—the whole staff has done their work—and we go about this the way that we all know how from the education and the game that we’ve already been given. And we’re always striving to learn. We’re trying to make our team better, regardless of the speculation—because it’s going to come. You look at this past World Series, and you’re talking about a manager who’s heading to the Hall of Fame and the second-winningest of all time—every move he made was being judged and second-guessed. So if you think it’s not going to happen to a first-year manager, you’re crazy. I get that—now what I do with that information afterward is really going to be the key.