Baseball invariably produces great anecdotal stories, and current St. Louis Cardinals manager and former longtime player Mike Matheny has his fair share. But how can you not begin his story with the one involving bird poop?
So, let’s start there—in 1988, in Ann Arbor, Mich., with the pigeon that changed everything.
Not even 18 years old yet, Matheny had come to the University of Michigan with a major-league dilemma. Earlier that summer, the Toronto Blue Jays had drafted the catching prospect from suburban Ohio in the 31st round, but Matheny decided to honor his college commitment.
Still, he had doubts. Getting drafted was a dream come true, and a higher draft slot several years later is never guaranteed. Plus, Toronto kept sweetening the deal throughout the summer.
Major League Baseball’s rules allow players to sign with teams up until the player officially enters college fulltime. As Matheny showered before his first day of classes, he prayed for God to give him a sign once and for all: Should he sign with Toronto or stay in college?
As he walked out of his dormitory with his stomach knotted, a pigeon defecated on his head.
Conventional wisdom would suggest the bird bombing was the sign Matheny should hit the road, but as he returned to the shower – he now remembers – he finally felt peace about staying in college. If he needed further clarity, when he reached class, he noticed a pretty field hockey player named Kristin, whom he would marry in 1993.
What, though, if the pigeon had missed? Would Matheny have thought otherwise about college, signing with the Blue Jays and altering his future? As a 17-year-old prospect, would he have become another baseball casualty, a minor-league lifer? Could he have ever broken into the lineup in Toronto in the early 1990s, while they were in the midst of back-to-back World Series titles?
No matter. The pigeon did not miss and Matheny returned to the shower where he found peace.
And here we are, 26 years later. The former catcher, a surprising choice for the Cardinals’ managerial role three years ago, is now making the St. Louis brass look awfully smart. At age 43—virtual adolescence when it comes to major league managers—he’s already notched appearances in the National League Championship Series and the World Series. He’s a rock star in the heartland and revered around the game for his humble leadership qualities.
Clearly, there’s a lot more to the story than pigeons.
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Matheny grew up in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, a quiet city on the eastern outskirts of Columbus that bills itself as “The Birthplace of the Tomato.” Other than 19th-century horticulturist Alexander W. Livingston, a.k.a. “The Father of the Modern Tomato,” Matheny is probably Reynoldsburg’s most famous native son.
Matheny’s parents, Jerry and Judy, a heavy equipment construction worker and a Baptist missionary association staffer, raised their four sons in a simple, conservative Christian home that was always at the local Baptist church. The Mathenys didn’t have much, but it was always enough.
“We lived in close quarters,” says Matheny, who put his faith in Christ as a young boy. “I saw how my parents handled adversity and tough times when work was hard to come by in the construction industry. I saw faith displayed—[the attitude of] ‘I’m going to go do, but I’m also going to trust.’”
After starring in baseball and football at Reynoldsburg High School and becoming a baseball co-captain in three years at Michigan, he signed with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1991 after they drafted him in the eighth round. Three years later, he made his major league debut and ultimately lasted 13 years in the big leagues with four different teams. In 2004, he helped lead the Cardinals to a 105-win regular season, only to be swept by the curse-busting Red Sox in the World Series.
In the batter’s box, Matheny was no Johnny Bench. For his career, he hit .239 with 67 home runs. But behind the dish, he took a backseat to no one. The four-time Gold Glove winner boasted a career fielding percentage of .994 with only 44 errors in 7,774 chances, and in 2003 he executed the third-ever flawless season by a catcher by posting a 1.000 fielding percentage (minimum 100 games).
“He was an extraordinary defensive catcher,” says Cardinals TV/radio commentator Rick Horton, a former major league pitcher who has also served as Greater St. Louis FCA’s director since 1993. “He was a tireless worker. He taught [current Cardinals catcher and six-time Gold Glover] Yadier Molina most of what Molina knows.”
Matheny was also one tough hombre, a veritable Bruce Willis in stirrups. For him, plays at the plate weren’t just opportunities to prevent a run; they were referendums on manliness. In that sense, he was the perfect match for Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa when Matheny arrived in St. Louis in 2000.
Matheny “was just a 100-percent-intense guy at all times,” Horton says. “It would be hard for anyone to dial up the intensity needed as a player one time, but he did that every day. He’d talk about, ‘I can’t take a day off ever.’ To play for Tony La Russa, who said, ‘Diamonds are made by pressure,’ that was his style. He wanted them to be serious and uptight and feel pressure, and that fit into Mike’s personality. He became that guy.”
Even before he played for La Russa, though, Matheny exuded hardiness. Exhibit A: The Milwaukee-Pittsburgh game in 1998, when Matheny took a fastball straight to the cheek during an at-bat. It hit him with such force that Kristin, sitting a few rows behind home plate, could hear the ball’s impact and later said, “you could see the ball’s stitch marks on his face.”
Instead of writhing in pain on the ground, Matheny barely flinched. He straightened up, spewed out a mouthful of blood and walked back to the dugout under his own power.
Baseball’s safety protocols weren’t then what they are today, so when his manager told him the next day that he could play if he could get his mask on, it was all Matheny needed to hear. With a puffy face and a couple missing teeth, he caught all 10 innings of another victory and soon earned the nickname “Mad Dog Matheny.”
“He was kind of a cross between Clint Eastwood and John Wayne in a baseball uniform,” Horton says.
For Matheny, doing whatever it took to be in the lineup was simply standard operating procedure, based on his spiritual convictions.
“I always felt I had the responsibility to be an example of how Christians ought to compete,” he says. “I still have those conversations with Christian players. We’re held to a higher standard. We’re serving a God who knows our intents and purposes. We should play the game in a way that honors Him, and that should be with a fierce competitor’s heart.”
In a cruel twist of irony, Mad Dog Matheny’s career was undone by the injuries he once snarled at. In May 2006, then with San Francisco, he took a series of foul tips to the head, forcing him onto the disabled list with concussion symptoms. He never returned to the field. For the next 18 months, the 35-year-old suffered a frightening array of concussion-related maladies: light-headedness, hazy vision, memory loss, speech deficiencies and more.
Bringing It Home: Christ-Like Identity
In Mike Matheny’s 13-year big league career he was often described as gritty, hard-working and tough. “Mad Dog Matheny” wore those adjectives on his sleeve, known throughout the league as one of its most intense players.
“I always felt I had the responsibility to be an example of how Christians ought to compete,” he said of his playing days. “We should play the game in a way that honors [God], and that should be with a fierce competitor’s heart.”
Life’s normal routines suddenly became complicated. Matheny would walk out the door to run an errand and return a few moments later, staring helplessly at Kristin and asking, “What am I supposed to be doing?” At Bible studies, his participation in conversations sometimes wouldn’t make sense. He constantly misplaced his wallet and cell phone.
“It was so scary,” Kristin says.
For a while, Matheny held out hope of returning to the field. But his doctors never cleared him to play. Eventually, the Giants decided to move on, and Matheny announced his retirement.
These days, despite suffering an estimated 25 to 30 concussions in his life, Matheny says he has no lingering symptoms.
Over the offseason, Matheny teamed with Giants manager Bruce Bochy and others and successfully lobbied MLB to create stricter rules on home-plate collisions. Matheny hopes his efforts will make baseball a safer place for the Yadier Molinas, Buster Poseys and Joe Mauers of the world.
Despite the abrupt end to his career, Mad Dog Matheny is proud of what he accomplished.
“The game didn’t come that easy to me, so I knew I had to outwork people,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to be given people to help me. I took a lot of pride in that—the way to play the game and being a teammate, things that go beyond stats, the way you show up and serve people. I had a 13-year career when some people didn’t think I’d get one day in the big leagues. I’m proud of playing in a World Series. I’m proud of winning four Gold Gloves. Those are things you work for, not something they hand out.”
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In 2008, Matheny wrote a letter. Back then, the now-famous document was intended for no one but the dozen families involved in the St. Louis-based TPX Warriors youth baseball team.
For years, Matheny had been sickened by the overbearing, intrusive behavior of some parents at his three oldest sons’ games—shouting at umpires or even their own kids, the brazen attempts to secure more playing time for their son. Matheny didn’t want any part of that. He attended games silently and anonymously, hiding away in a lawn chair under a tree way down the left field line. While other kids often got an earful from their parents, Matheny’s oldest child, Tate, heard nothing from his major league dad.
“He never said anything to me,” says Tate, now a sophomore center fielder at Missouri State. “To this day, he won’t say anything to me unless I ask.”
So when some friends asked Matheny to coach his third son Jake’s 10-and-under team in 2008, he reluctantly agreed. But first, he fired up his computer and began typing. Philosophies and provisos spilled onto the page. The resulting letter, a 2,557-word opus now known as “The Matheny Manifesto,” was a gracious but firm preemptive strike against parental meddling. It included gems such as:
• “I have found the biggest problem with youth sports has been the parents.”
• “If there is anything about [a player’s experience] that includes you, we need to make a change of plans.”
• “Players who do not hustle and run out balls will not play.”
The letter was a hit. Someone—and Matheny still doesn’t know whom—put it online, and the thing went viral. Now, youth coaches all over the country use it as inspiration. Matheny’s official website, www.mikematheny.com, makes it available in its entirety. And as of this spring, Matheny and best-selling Christian author Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind series, were shopping it as a book idea to publishers.
One year into retirement, this was Matheny’s new life: Trying to keep ornery youth baseball parents at bay.
Eventually, Matheny eased himself back into professional baseball. In 2010 he became a roving catching instructor in the Cardinals’ farm system, and in 2011 he worked as an analyst for FOX Sports Midwest.
Then, it happened. It wasn’t quite as audacious or revolutionary as, say, Pythagoras suggesting the earth was round in sixth century B.C., but the Cardinals’ hiring of Matheny as manager in November 2011 was a bold move in baseball’s tradition-bound universe.
For decades, the sport’s conventional wisdom said that teams should fill managerial vacancies with wise, old baseball men with previous managing or coaching experience. Taking a risk on a young guy with no experience was a move reserved for the desperate, and the Cardinals—coming off their 11th World Series title—were anything but.
The Cardinals interviewed at least five other candidates to replace La Russa, including two-time World Series champion manager Terry Francona, but the interview committee kept coming back to the leather-tough former catcher who lacked a single game of major league coaching experience. They were intrigued by his instinctive leadership qualities and the preparedness, poise and intellect he displayed during the three-hour interview.
The morning after the interview, Matheny took a group of 50 people affiliated with the TPX Warriors on a short-term missions trip to the Dominican Republic. They constructed buildings, dug ditches and performed other community service acts during the day and played baseball at night.
When he got home, the Cardinals called. At age 41, Matheny became the youngest active manager in the majors.
“For players, no matter who you are, you have to pay your dues,” Horton says. “But to become a manager right out of the chute? [Matheny] was leading a kids’ team and roving with the Cardinals! He just wowed them with his interviews and was extremely prepared. It’s extremely rare for this to happen, but Mike Matheny is extremely rare.”
Matheny himself acknowledges God’s sovereign hand in his stunning promotion, calling his hiring a “parting-of-the-Red-Sea, walking-on-water type of miracle.”
In hindsight, Mozeliak looks prescient. As a rookie manager in 2012, Matheny guided St. Louis to within one game of the World Series. In year two, he took a Cardinals team that lacked power (Carlos Beltran led the team with 24 homers) and speed (top base stealer Jon Jay had 10) to the World Series, where they lost to heavily bearded Boston in six games. Despite the loss, Matheny is one of only nine major league managers to lead their team to the playoffs in both of their first two years. After the season, he received a three-year contract extension through 2017.
“What an honor it’s been so far to be associated with this organization,” he says. “I’m proud of how the guys go about their business. We’ve got a great group of guys of faith.”
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The ripple effect of Matheny’s sudden rise to prominence and his unique take on the manager’s role has spread far and wide. Near the end of last season, MLB.com published a long piece about Matheny’s brand of “servant-leadership.” A month later, in the midst of the World Series, The Washington Post ran a story entitled “The leadership smarts of Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.”
Matheny seeks to support and encourage his players, not lord it over them. This type of leadership might be unique to the outside world, but not to a man who is familiar with passages like Mark 10:45 and Philippians 2:3-8, which speak of the humility of his Savior.
Matheny’s leadership gifts were evident far before he took the manager’s chair. In 2002, he became a stabilizing clubhouse force after Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile, a close friend, died suddenly of heart failure during a June road trip. Matheny, who led his teammates through much prayer and Scripture that summer, also helped guide St. Louis to the NLCS.
The following year, Matheny’s teammates voted him the first recipient of the organization’s annual Darryl Kile Award, given to the player who exemplifies strong character qualities.
“I see my job as leading and challenging, mostly through serving,” he says. “It’s 10 percent baseball and 90 percent people. I have an opportunity to impact these guys in a positive way. I believe it’s my job.”
For Matheny, the “Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria” of the Great Commission is baseball. But it wasn’t always so. In 1991, when Matheny was a 20-year-old greenhorn playing for Milwaukee’s rookie-level affiliate in Helena, Mont., he reconnected with an old college teammate who had found out in the meantime that Matheny was a Christian.
“Oh,” his friend said, “I didn’t know that you were a believer.”
“That was a real slap in the face,” Matheny says. “Through high school and college, I was a closet Christian. My heart was in the right place, but there was an element missing. I was growing, but I wasn’t professing.”
He vowed never to be reticent about his faith again. As he established himself with the Brewers in the mid-to-late 1990s, he began attending a Tuesday night FCA Bible study near his home in the St. Louis area in the offseason. The Bible study was run by Walt Enoch, the former chaplain of St. Louis’ MLB and NFL teams and an original FCA staff member in the area.
Matheny, who has been a member of various FCA boards since the late 1990s, also served as the dean of Greater St. Louis FCA’s “Boys Weekend of Champions” camp from 1998 to 2006. In 2011, he spoke at the St. Louis chapter’s annual Huddle Kickoff Banquet at Busch Stadium.
“His leadership is so strong,” says Erik Arneson, FCA’s Metro East Illinois area director who has worked with Matheny at various FCA functions. “He really understands coaching and coaches. He’s a great speaker. If he didn’t do baseball, he could be a preacher because he’s so articulate in how he communicates. It’s always a clear message of the gospel from Mike.”
In 2003, Mike and Kristin started the Catch-22 Foundation to help disadvantaged children in the greater St. Louis area. Two years later, the foundation christened the Catch-22 Miracle Field, a disability-friendly baseball diamond in Chesterfield, Mo.
The kid from Reynoldsburg has come a long way since that pigeon-marred day a quarter-century ago. As he puts on the manager’s jersey for a third season, he’s “still humbled and appreciative of the opportunity.” But he knows his lofty perch is about much more than baseball.
“We’re all missionaries,” he says. “I believe in the saying: ‘Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.’ If I’m doing that, opportunities to share will come to give a reason for the hope I have. I look forward to those conversations.”
Originally published May 2014
Photos courtesy of Taka Yanagimoto and Scott Rovak/St. Louis Cardinals