March 19, 2012; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny (22) and batting coach Mark McGwire (25) talk during batting practice before a spring training game against the Atlanta Braves at Disney Wide World of Sports complex. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

Time for the Rubber to Meet the Road for Matheny and the Redbirds

I resisted the urge to utilize the old April Fools joke today. I had some doozies created but alas, I chose to bypass those and simply write about how close the opening of the season actually is and what that means for manager Mike Matheny and the St. Louis Cardinals. We are a mere two days from opening day in Miami with the Marlins and their new stadium. I am amazed that the scheduling gurus at MLB apparently don’t own a map when looking at the Cards opening week. Springfield, Missouri tomorrow and then back to Miami on Wednesday for a one game series. Really? Then on to Milwaukee on Friday for a weekend series with the Brewers. I understand the Marlins wanting the World Champions there to draw a crowd to help them christen their new digs, but I question the logic of a one game series.

This schedule is the first of the challenges that lay in wait for rookie skipper Matheny. For the first time since 1996 the Cardinals open the season with a new manager. For the first time since Albert Fred  “Red” Schoendist in 1965 the Cards open the season with not only a rookie manager but also as a defending champion. Old Red went on to win over a thousand games, two pennants and World Championship. Matheny hopes to do just as well. As many reporters and bloggers have beat to death, Matheny has some huge shoes to fill. The Cardinals have an incredible legacy of leadership. When you take quick peek into the past you readily recognize the names and their accomplishments. The big four (the four managers who have led the Birds for at least two full seasons) are either already enshrined in the Hall or will be when the time comes. Of Schoendist, Whitey Herzog, Joe Torre and Tony LaRussa only Torre failed to win a World Series. He picked up a few of those with the New York Yankees. Matheny’s coaching career consists of this spring training and some youth traveling teams. He’s about to be thrown in to the pressure cooker of the Major League season in a hurry.

In the interest of full disclosure I am a Matheny fan from his playing days. I have an autographed ball in my basement that is on display from his time as a Cardinals’ catcher. He was one of my favorites. He always struck me as a guy who wasn’t the most talented, but worked his tail off to be the best he could. I love what I am seeing in his coaching style so far. He is a player’s coach. I recently read an article that he subscribes to Tony Dungy’s “servant leadership” style. From everything coming out of camp he has embraced it. Both men are steeped in their faith and their approach to their job takes that into account. It is basically an approach that uses the old adage that they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. If you are a coach or want to gain some insight to the coaching world grab one of Dungy’s books. You won’t be sorry.

Matheny has received rave reviews from his players thus far. By all accounts he has gone out of his way to approach all of his players. The players feel that they can approach him and that what they say is actually valued. I think Matheny has done a great job of being himself. The easiest thing in the world for him to do would have been to come in and do everything the way LaRussa did. However, that is not Mike Matheny. He will forge his own path and that is exactly what is needed from him right now. I am not sure how much input Matheny had in selecting his coaching staff. There were many changes made that I believe came from the upper echelon of the organization. Matheny has made the best of it if he didn’t have any input. He regularly consults his coaches and I feel that more of his staff has a role than LaRussa’s staff ever did. Whether that is a positive or negative only time will tell.

Matheny is an extremely smart guy. He is educated and speaks fluent Spanish. I didn’t realize this until the other day when I caught a clip of him speaking to Jose Oquendo in Spanish. I immediately went online and discovered that his education at Michigan included sports management and communication with Spanish as an area of emphasis. Matheny is a people person. He approaches the game differently. I am interested in seeing how the season plays out. I am intrigued to see how hos communication style and interaction with his staff alters the many games ahead. Where many Cardinal fans were sometimes infuriated with LaRussa’s obsessive moves and the numbers of them I am anxious to see what their take on Matheny’s style and just what his signature will be.

Matheny says that he knows he must win. I will boldly predict that he will win. The law of averages tells us that he will at least win some. I believe that Matheny’s skill with managing people will pay off when it comes to game management. What to do in a certain situation is rudimentary to players and coaches. Matheny was a field general as a catcher during his playing days. Knowing exactly what to do in those games situations may take a little time and adjustment. I will take my chances at this point knowing that he is relying on the quality people he is surrounded with on his coaching staff. I am confident that he will use all of the tools at his disposal to help his players be the best they can and put themselves and the team in the best possible situation to win ballgames. With the start of the season just around the corner we will know pretty quickly where the Cards are.

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Tags: Joe Torre Jose Oquendo Mike Matheny Red Schoendist St Louis Cardinals Tony Dungy Tony La Russa Whitey Herzog

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