If you watch enough baseball games during the season, pictures from the field begin to unconsciously embed in your mind. Maybe it’s the pitching mechanics of the staff ace, maybe the batting stance of your favorite player, but baseball fans -- as opposed to NFL fans -- live and die with their team day in and day out all summer long. So it’s not surprising we know the mannerisms of certain players. However, what is unique is when the ghosts of baseball's past hang around and make something special happen on the field.
There was one baseball game in July, back when it was 105 degrees in St. Louis and the fair-weather fans couldn't have cared less about the postseason, when Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was standing in the dugout with his right leg perched on the top step while his elbow rested on his leg. As he looked out to the field at Busch Stadium for a second he looked exactly like former manager Tony La Russa; the way he moved around in the dugout, the crane of his neck as he glanced down the right-field line, he looked so much like La Russa it was remarkable. But it’s not that surprising, is it?
After all, Matheny played for La Russa from 2000 to 2004. As a catcher he had the opportunity to interact with his manager more than other position players, so perhaps it was inevitable he would display some similarities to the managers he knew best.
What is surprising is the relative ease Matheny, having managed only Little League baseball, has had in taking the defending world champions back to the National League Championship Series and two wins away from another World Series berth.
Matheny, never one to put the attention on himself, did not let the fact that he was coaching former teammates become an issue. Chris Carpenter and Yadier Molina (who took over Matheny's job in 2005) were both former teammates, as were hitting coaches Mark McGwire and John Mabry.
Besides losing face-of-the-franchise Albert Pujols, the Cardinals lost staff ace Carpenter for all but the last two weeks of the season. Lance Berkman, one of the core run producers in 2011, had only 81 at-bats all season.
Early in spring training I asked Yankees manager Joe Girardi (another former teammate of Matheny’s; baseball is a small world, isn’t it?) what he felt Matheny’s greatest challenge would be in his first year. Girardi said dealing with the media. When I mentioned this to Matheny in spring training he wasn’t worried about it, but like most first-year managers he's had to learn how to answer tough questions about his team. He has done so with little drama in the national spotlight, and has adjusted to the added media pressure the postseason brings.
And don’t forget Matheny’s personal story of perseverance. The first nine months after Matheny suffered a career-ending concussion in 2006 he was unable to speak correctly, put things together cognitively or get his heart rate up enough to play any outdoor games with his kids, including the family favorite -- Wiffle ball. The fact that Matheny is able to walk onto the field each day and pitch batting practice to the team is a great story in and of itself. It’s not just a feel-good story, as Matheny’s injury was one which helped influence Major League Baseball in instituting a seven-day DL for players who suffer concussions.
While many people around baseball might be surprised at Matheny’s success, his accomplishments are not lost on one group of 14-year-olds in St. Louis. The kids Matheny once coached have paid close attention to their former coach. When Matheny told them he was going to manage their favorite MLB team, they were not surprised.
"We knew he was the perfect one for the job," said Josh, a 14-year-old who played for Matheny for four years. "He was better than all the other candidates. He told us he’s going to be giving all the Cardinals everything he taught us, and we just knew. We knew life goes on and that he’s going to go very far."
People can now see -- as Matheny's Little League knew all along -- why the Cardinals hired him to replace La Russa. Of course, there are some aspects to his managing style where he departs from La Russa; while Matheny would stick with his pitchers longer than La Russa during the regular season, in the postseason he is making adjustments each game and is managing every game as though it's the last -- similar to the style La Russa employed a year ago.
There’s one aspect where Matheny has ended up being more similar to La Russa than anyone anticipated. La Russa had an amazing ability to utilize an entire team to somehow, magically and with history-defying fight, win games. General manager John Mozeliak deserves credit for seeing that Matheny could bring that same kind of fight -- and, perhaps, with a little thanks to the ghost of La Russa still hanging around.