Cardinals find Matheny speaks their language
JUPITER, Fla. -- It was cut day in Cardinals camp a couple weeks back, and Mike Matheny summoned Dominican Republic native Maikel Cleto into his office.When Cleto sat down, Matheny gave him the bad news. In Spanish. "All my coaches kind of looked at me a bit stunned," Matheny recalled with a smile. "They didn't even know I spoke it. I think they thought I was going to use Spanglish." Matheny's bilingual abilities, which date back to his electives concentration at the University of Michigan, are just part of what's helped him catch on so quickly as the Cardinals' skipper. Any doubts that might have existed as to whether this club would embrace a guy with no previous managerial or coaching experience at any professional level were answered right away.
"Every manager I've worked with ... and I've had quite a few," Lance Berkman said, "the first thing they have to do is earn the trust of the team. With Mike, that was Day 1. It was a very quick process because we all know what type of person he is."Depending on your perspective, Matheny either inherited a dream scenario or a particularly difficult one. On the one hand, he has a roster ready to contend, a veteran-laden group that polices itself. On the other hand, he's replacing a Hall of Famer in Tony La Russa, he doesn't have veteran pitching coach Dave Duncan by his side in the dugout, as initially intended, and he has a club whose standards and expectations could not be higher after last season's World Series glory. "He's got to make sure he's not too hard on himself," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "He's going to punish himself. I've been doing this for 21 years and I still punish myself when I make mistakes. But I think he'll be fine. He's a very disciplined guy, has a great relationship with players, played the game as a catcher and has a big advantage having the best catcher [Yadier Molina] in baseball. As long as he doesn't put too much pressure on himself, he's going to be fine." Matheny did not come into camp with blinders on. He knew he'd have to endure an adjustment period, and the adjustments in this game come daily. Just the other day came word that co-ace Chris Carpenter will be out indefinitely with nerve issues, and so the rotation Matheny inherited looks a lot less robust than it did when camp opened. The Cards, of course, overcame a number of ailments (most notably, the loss of Adam Wainwright) and in-season adjustments en route to their surprising September surge and World Series run last season, and they'll have to adjust on the fly again in 2012. This time around, however, they won't have nearly the same level of experience, the same guiding hand, in the managerial seat. It's way too soon to tell if that's an issue. But it will undoubtedly be different in the dugout. "There are new challenges every day," Matheny said. "I tried not to go in with too many expectations of what things will look like. But the one consistent I knew I wanted to bring to the table was just who I am. It may not line up with anybody else that does this, but this is what I believe in and this is what I like to see us do." Matheny has a great presence to him. We think of him as the epitome of toughness -- a man who endured an estimated seven concussions before finally calling it a career in 2007. But he also has a bucolic sense of composure, even as this Carpenter situation has unraveled before his eyes. For whatever it's worth, he's been exceedingly accommodating to fans -- shaking hands, signing balls, kissing babies and whatnot. But most importantly, he has the respect of those who lead this club on the field, and that's a big part of the battle. "He's just got a good leadership quality about him," Matt Holliday said. "First of all, he's a good person, and I think people respect someone who treats people the right way. I think he's a good communicator, and I think as a manager that's important. And he's a humble guy. I think he's done a great job of coming in and just kind of keeping things going. We're lucky to have him." The days are long and the decisions are difficult, but Spring Training is, naturally, not the best barometer by which to judge Matheny's managerial skills. We'll learn a lot more about him in-season. But if there was any worry that the Cards' unconventional decision to hire Matheny -- passing over third-base coach Jose Oquendo, among others -- would create an awkward tone in camp, that fear was erased rather quickly. "This transition is going to be easier," Oquendo said, "because the guys who have been here have been here a long time, and they know what the program is. Mike has a great skill in talking to the guys and paying attention to small details. The thing is, we communicate well. That's important." And yes, sometimes they communicate en Espanol. "He does a good job," a smiling Oquendo said. "I understand a lot of what he says." When Matheny arrived to the Michigan campus for his sophomore year, newly installed head baseball coach Bill Freehan -- the great defensive catcher who spent 15 seasons with the Tigers in the 1960s and '70s -- called him into his office and told him to schedule an appointment with his guidance counselor. "From now on," Freehan told Matheny, "every one of your electives is Spanish." Recalled Matheny: "That was a 'yes, sir' conversation." Freehan saw in Matheny then what the Cardinals see now -- a natural-born leader. And he wanted him to maximize his opportunity to communicate with the Latin players he'd one day be guiding. With all his players, Latin or otherwise, Matheny wants to develop a level of trust in which he honestly relays his expectations to his players and his players honestly relay any concerns, especially injuries, that might affect their performance. "I'm an optimistic person by nature," Matheny said. "I'm going to find bright spots. That was what I did as a player as well. I loved trying to get guys to believe in themselves. You need that optimism, but you also need a kick in the butt once in a while. So that's something that I'm not concerned about not being able to do -- that ability to give them those direct conversations."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.