A year ago, Mike Matheny was an anomaly.
A former big league catcher, he was the first-year manager of the storied St. Louis Cardinals, even though he had never been a coach nor a manager at the professional level. He answered the field of questions by guiding a St. Louis team that no longer had Tony La Russa or Albert Pujols to a Wild Card berth in the postseason, advancing to the National League Championship Series, where the Cards lost to the eventual World Series champion Giants in seven games.
Now Matheny heads into the final days of his second regular season, once again a manager in the midst of a pennant race, the Cardinals sitting atop the NL Central on Wednesday morning for the 119th day this season. St. Louis is a game ahead of Pittsburgh and 2 1/2 in front of Cincinnati, the two NL Wild Card leaders. And his team has reduced its magic number for clinching a Wild Card berth to five -- combination of St. Louis wins and Washington losses.
Last year, it wasn't until two days before the end of the regular season that the Cards clinched. This year, they could have the postseason assurance out of the way by Matheny's 43rd birthday on Monday, which happens to be the day St. Louis opens a three-game series against Washington.
Life, however, isn't easier the second time around, he concedes.
"Every year has its challenges," Matheny said.
And this year's challenges, he admits, may be even bigger than a year ago, and not just because injuries have disrupted a pitching staff, which, among other things, had to sort through its closer role after losing Jason Motte to season-ending surgery in May.
"Last year, people didn't have expectations," said Matheny. "There's more of an edge [to the managerial job scrutiny] this year. Before people thought it was about a learning curve and the talent took over. This year it's more heated. It's not, 'Can he do a good job?' It's, 'What in the heck is he thinking?'"
What Matheny is thinking is that he really does enjoy the opportunity that he was given a year ago by general manager John Mozeliak, who went against the flow by hiring Matheny despite his lack of a managerial resume to take over for La Russa, the third-winningest manager in Major League history and the manager who won more games than any other in franchise history.
But then Matheny has a chance for a little history of his own in the next few days. He is in line to become only the 11th manager in Major League history to take a team to the postseason in his first two full managerial seasons. The list includes Gabby Street, who led the Cardinals to NL pennants in 1930 and '31, leading the club to the World Series championship in the second year.
Also in the group are Ron Gardenhire (2002-04, Minnesota), Bob Brenly ('01-02, Arizona), Larry Dierker (1997-99, Houston), Dallas Green (1980-81, Philadelphia), Tommy Lasorda (1977-78, Los Angeles), Ralph Houk (1961-63, New York Yankees), Mickey Cochrane (1934-35, Detroit), Bucky Harris (1924-25, Washington) and Hughie Jennings (1907-09, Detroit).
Brenly, Cochrane, Harris, Houk and Green also included World Series championships on their resumes.
"Right now,'' said Matheny, "our focus is on tonight's win. I learned a long time ago [that] you don't look too far ahead. If you don't take care of today, tomorrow won't matter.''
Matheny does have a feel for the game. Considered one of the best defensive catchers to don the tools of ignorance, the University of Michigan product had his playing career cut short because of concussions, and he had worked as a special assistant in player development for the Cards before becoming the 49th manager in club history. He spent five of his 13 big league seasons with St. Louis, where he won three of his four Gold Glove Awards.
It gave him a definite appreciation of the Redbird Nation and the reverence in which the franchise is held. Only the Yankees have won more pennants (40) and World Series (27) than the Cardinals, who have won 22 NL championships and 11 World Series championships.
The Cards' list of retired numbers includes Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Dizzy Dean, Bruce Sutter, Ozzie Smith, Enos Slaughter, Stan Musial, Lou Brock, Rogers Hornsby, Red Schoendienst and Whitey Herzog. Ken Boyer, an All-Star third baseman, joins La Russa, Schoendienst and Herzog as former managers whose number also is retired by the Cardinals.
None of that is lost on Matheny, who respects what the franchise stands for, but is not intimidated.
"It's an honor to be a big league manager, particularly here," Matheny said. "But that doesn't affect how you go about your job. You learn things from your experiences, from the managers you played for, but the bottom line is you have to be yourself. If you aren't yourself, the players can feel that.''
What they can feel from Matheny is a quiet confidence.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less