The Kansas City Royals come to town after splitting a four-game series with Cleveland, and Mike Matheny will return to Busch Stadium for his annual visit as KC’s manager. This is another homecoming for a Redbird who made valuable contributions as a player in the prosperous early 2000s. And in Matheny’s second act, he won a National League pennant and a lot of ballgames as Cardinals manager for six-plus seasons.
Matheny was sacked right before the All-Star break in 2018 after going through a roiling, pressure-packed half-season that drained his confidence and altered his positive outlook. Matheny withdrew into a shell, and the players were no longer responding to him. The job got to him. Started to eat him up. This happens to the finest of managers, and all they can do is regroup, look inward, and find ways to get better during their next stop. To his credit, Matheny has done that in KC.
By now enough time has passed, and it’s best to remember what Matheny meant to the Cardinals. Though his homecoming isn’t at the level of an Albert Pujols coming back as a member of the Angels or Dodgers, or David Freese returning to the ballpark in the uniform of the Pirates or Dodgers. But over time, Matheny’s days with the Cardinals will be more recognized and remembered. And he will be more appreciated.
There was never a tougher Cardinal than Mike Matheny. This catcher had an attitude. He took charge. He was large and physical and cut an imposing figure. Opponents didn’t mess with him. He absorbed the terrible brunt of foul tips, collisions, and competed with a bloody mouth. He would put his body on the line to win a ballgame. Pitching coach Dave Duncan and manager Tony La Russa loved and respected his bravery and strength behind the plate, and the way he pushed his pitchers.
I was hard on Matheny during his last couple of years as managing here, but that really doesn’t matter now. I’m looking forward. Down the road, perhaps when he’s retired or close to it, Matheny is worthy of legitimate consideration for the Cardinals Hall of Fame.
In five seasons (2000-2004) as the team’s starting catcher Matheny won three Gold Gloves and anchored a pitching staff of a team that competed in four postseasons and won the NL pennant in ‘04. With Matheny as their catcher the Cardinals had a .586 winning percentage that ranked second in the NL over his five seasons. Those teams had annual league MVP candidates, but Matheny’s leadership was valued and important. He helped those teams in ways that didn’t materialize on the stats files.
As the St. Louis manager Matheny guided the Cardinals to four consecutive postseasons (2012-2015) and the NL pennant in 2013. Overall he managed the Cardinals to a 591-474 record for a .555 winning percentage. His teams reached the NLCS three times, and won 100 games in 2015.
Check out these winning percentages of four Cardinal managers:
Mike Matheny, .555
Tony La Russa, .544
Whitey Herzog, .530
Red Schoendienst, .522
The job is going well for Matheny in his second opportunity to manage a big-league team. He had his contract option picked up by team management last month, so he’s set to manage the Royals through 2023 – at least.
Matheny has received considerable praise for his leadership of a young roster that features several prospect-graduates including rookie third baseman Bobby Witt Jr. the second overall pick of the 2019 draft.
Other than Zack Greinke the Royals have a relatively inexperienced rotation. Greinke, 38, has made 489 regular-season starts in his MLB career. The other starters —- Brad Keller, Kris Bubic, Carlos Hernandez and Daniel Lynch – have an average age of 25.4 years and have combined for 145 big-league starts … in addition to Witt the Royals lineup has plenty of familiar names including Whit Merrifield, Salvador Perez, Carlos Santana, Michael Taylor, Andrew Benintendi, Hunter Dozier, Adalberto Mondesi and Nicky Lopez …
Matheny took over a team that averaged 103.5 losses and had a .361 winning percentage over 2018-2019. He’s improved Kansas City’s winning percentage in each of his two seasons as manager: .433 in the shortened 2020 season, followed by a 74-88 record (.457) in 2021. That 74-88 record was the best by the Royals since the 2017 season. He led the Royals to a 38-35 record after the All-Star break last season, and this is clearly an up-and-coming team that will be heard from. It’s just a matter of time.
Matheny learned a lot from his experience as a manager in St. Louis, and is significantly better as a communicator. The low-pressure setting in Kansas City is a plus; Matheny can evolve as a manager without having fans and media bark at every turn. He’s popular in Kansas City. He’s confident. He’s happy. He goes about everything with an admirable work ethic, but he moves more easily now. He’s patient with the young dudes and enjoys the teaching part of his job.
“There’s no place I’d rather be than here, in the middle of something really special,” Matheny told reporters after the team picked up his 2023 option. “A special group of players. A special organization. Just the vision. Everything is right on. I just couldn’t be happier to be in the spot where they have the confidence moving forward with me in this position.”
Matheny was a special Cardinal who shouldn’t be forgotten here. And hopefully he’s on the way to creating a legacy in Kansas City.
Thanks for reading …
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.