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Richard Justice

Learning on the job, equable Matheny a hit in St. Louis

A smooth transition to manager in 2012 has the former catcher thinking big in '13

Learning on the job, equable Matheny a hit in St. Louis play video for Learning on the job, equable Matheny a hit in St. Louis

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- As he looks back on all of it now, Mike Matheny enjoys poking fun at himself and emphasizing all the things he didn't know.

"Personally, one of the goals that I had was to not be a distraction and not get in the way of the momentum that was already started," he said.

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Actually, Matheny was way more than a passenger on the bus in his first year as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. His players say they appreciated him for a long list of things, including his honesty, toughness and preparation.

"One thing with Mike is that he really cares about relationships," third baseman David Freese said. "He cares about you as a person. Obviously, baseball is very important, but there's more to Mike than just winning ball games. That draws you closer to him and brings the team closer."

To take over for one of the game's most successful managers and to keep the Cardinals running smoothly was a terrific accomplishment. Matheny was an unconventional choice by Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak to replace Tony La Russa.

Matheny might have been a perfect choice, too. He'd never managed a game at any level, but he was universally respected because of a 13-year career in which he seemed to be the leader of every team he was on.

Matheny is one of those people who seems to command a room the moment he enters it. He played just five seasons for the Cardinals, but he was the de facto captain of teams that went to the playoffs four times.

But let's not interrupt a good story.

"I'm proud of our coaching staff," Matheny said. "I promise you they had more responsibility than any other coaching staff in the game, to cover up and help me do what I needed to do. That's in all honesty. They've had more responsibilities than they've ever had before. I was not very slow to announce the fact that I was delegating a lot. There were some very experienced guys around here who brought a lot to the table, and I wanted to hear what they had to say."

If Matheny knew the things he didn't know, then good for him. But in the heat of battle, he was the one who still had to make the tough decisions. He was also the guy who had to build relationships in the clubhouse and to get players to trust in him.

Managing in 2013 is more about trust than anything else. Managers have access to all kinds of data to help them with in-game decisions, lineups, etc. But getting guys to play hard and with a singular goal through the grind of a long season begins with the manager.

Matheny couldn't fake those things if he tried. But he did try. At one point last summer, a reporter looked in his office and saw three iPads propped up on his desk.

Three iPads? Really, Mike?

"You need three of 'em when you don't know very much," he said.

There probably were a few days when he did feel overwhelmed. Not only was he taking over a team that had just won a World Series, he was replacing a manager who had led the Cardinals to 1,408 victories and two World Series championships in 16 seasons.

In addition, the Cardinals lost their best player -- Albert Pujols -- to free agency, and they had their best pitcher -- Chris Carpenter -- for only a handful of games in 2012. How's that for a challenge?

"You take a team that had just won the World Series," Matheny said. "The change could certainly become a distraction. We made it very clear that it was just more new opportunities, one of them being me. An opportunity to step in and keep that tradition and momentum going. I was proud of the fact I didn't get in the way so much that we weren't able to at least see some October baseball and get real close to where wanted to go."

When the sting of a Game 7 loss to the Giants in the National League Championship Series began to fade, Matheny surely experienced an assortment of emotions. Pride had to be one of them.

"I think pride is a great way to think of it," he said. "I'm very proud of what our guys were able to do and how they went about it. They could have been very distracted. There were plenty of reasons, plenty of excuses not to go about the business the way that they did."

Unlike a year ago, this offseason was a quiet one for the Cardinals, with most of the changes coming as players from one of baseball's best farm systems push for jobs. The Cardinals are widely considered one of the 10 best teams in baseball. Still, when Matheny is asked if this has been a "comfortable" camp, he answers quickly.

"We think any sort of contentment is a breeding ground for future failures," he said. "We're very clear that we have high expectations to get better everyday. As soon as we start having any kind of contentment, we're not going in the right direction.

"We set the bar high, and that's part of being in an organization like this [that is] so rich in tradition. Plus we do have a talent level that should demand from each other and themselves that we win. We continue to push these guys to excel and have the best years of their careers."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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