Cardinals manager Mike Matheny a ‘born leader’

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Mike Matheny could have had it much worse as a rookie major league manager, there’s no doubt about that.

He could have stepped into a muddled clubhouse situation, as Robin Ventura did with the Chicago White Sox after the fractious reign of Ozzie Guillen. Or found himself overseeing an organization that had utterly bottomed out, as Nationals third base coach Bo Porter will when he takes over the Houston Astros this winter.

Instead, Matheny inherited the World Series champions and a strong legacy of recent success from the retired Tony La Russa when he took over the St. Louis Cardinals last November.

Not a bad gig. But not an automatic ticket back to the playoffs, either.

That’s where the Cardinals find themselves once again, though, their National League Division Series with the Washington Nationals knotted at 1-1 as the teams prepare for Wednesday’s Game 3 at Nationals Park.

It’s a seasoned group Matheny has guided along a sometimes-rocky path to the last of the 10 playoff spots, through a taut wild-card game in a hostile environment and into the NLDS. Most of his roster experienced last year’s run to a World Series title, leading to something of an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach for the longtime big-league catcher.

“He’s got a great presence, he’s very even-keeled,” said Cardinals first baseman Lance Berkman, who played against Matheny for years. “We’ve had some rough times this year. I feel like our regular-season record does not reflect the talent that we have in here as a group now, but he did an excellent job of staying the course and keeping guys focused even when they weren’t playing well.”

It has been a delicate balance for Matheny, who turned 42 last month. Entering 2012, he had never been a manager or even a full-time coach at the professional level. After concussions ended his catching career midway through the 2006 season, he served as a special assistant and spring training instructor for the Cardinals.

A resume light on qualifications for the position he now holds set Matheny up for immediate and continuous scrutiny. That would have been the case in any market, but the focus on Matheny’s decision-making and evolution as a manager has been especially sharp in baseball-mad St. Louis.

Local coverage of the Cardinals’ Game 1 loss to the Nationals drilled down repeatedly on Matheny seemingly being outwitted by the old sage Davey Johnson in the reliever-vs.-pinch-hitter standoff that ultimately led to Tyler Moore’s go-ahead single off Marc Rzepczynski. There was no such brow-furrowing in the media Tuesday morning in the wake of the Cardinals’ Game 2 rout, but the ebb and flow of Matheny the manager is an ongoing storyline.

“I think what you have to admire about him is how quickly he evolved as a manager, how he understood that he had to make changes as he went,” said Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak. “He showed flexibility in how he was approaching his managerial style and his decision-making. I don’t see a radically different [game manager]. I do see a more confident [manager], someone that clearly looks like he belongs.”

On that point, Matheny is in full agreement.

“I think every day I’ve learned something new,” he said with the straightforward, almost monotonous delivery that mirrors his calming approach in the dugout and clubhouse.

Veteran outfielder Skip Schumaker calls Matheny a “born leader” and notes the deep level of respect the manager has earned in the clubhouse.

Matheny vowed, for instance, not to use profanity to vent about whatever frustrations he encountered over the course of the season. There have been plenty, and it should be said that a baseball clubhouse can be a remarkably profane environment, but Matheny has kept his word. And that word, mostly, is “dadgumit.”

“That means he’s fired up,” Schumaker said.

Though only a few players in the Cardinals’ clubhouse — Berkman, Chris Carpenter, Carlos Beltran — could be considered contemporaries of Matheny, you sometimes get a sense that the four-time Gold Glove winner might be just one of the guys.

“We do have a veteran club and guys that have been around the club a little bit,” said first baseman Allen Craig, “but Mike definitely has his own voice and he’s done a good job of speaking up when things need to be said.”

Then again, that isn’t all that different from the role Matheny held as a player. He was considered instrumental in keeping the Cardinals together in 2002 after the sudden midseason death of pitcher Darryl Kile rocked the team. The following year, his teammates voted him the inaugural recipient of the Darryl Kile Award, which goes to the player who best exemplifies Kile’s humble, selfless demeanor.

“He’s a team guy,” Nationals infielder Mark DeRosa said. “He was a team guy when he played. He put the team before himself. He showed up every day. He was consistent in his approach at the plate, behind the plate, everything he did. That’s probably what he asks out of his players.”

And out of himself. Don’t think this season has been easy for Matheny; the on-the-job training involved has been considerable. Asked how he has changed as a manager since spring training, Matheny responded, “Besides less hair and ulcers?” before moving on to what amounted to a reiteration of his mission statement.

“I love this game,” he said. “I love the job. I enjoy getting to invest into these guys and then watching them turn and invest into each other. That’s really the culture we have created here, is us — this team — going out and having each other’s back all the time.”

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