Mike Matheny

How the Cardinals signed future Gold Glove winner Mike Matheny

When the Cardinals signed Mike Matheny on December 15, 1999, they were just looking for a veteran backstop to play alongside Eli Marrero. Instead, they found a future Gold Glove Award winner and the franchise’s next manager.

General manager Walt Jocketty was seeking a veteran catcher to complement Marrero, who had hit just .192 the previous season in his first season back from thyroid cancer surgery. When catcher Albert Castillo, who claimed the starting job during the second half of the 1999 season, was included in the trade for starting pitcher Pat Hentgen, the Cardinals found themselves in need of an experienced backstop who might be counted on for significant playing time.

However, Matheny wasn’t Jocketty’s first choice. Instead, the Cardinals sought Joe Girardi, who had won three World Series championships in his four seasons with the Yankees. Though the Cardinals and Giants both offered Girardi more money, the 35-year-old opted to sign with his hometown Cubs.

“It’s the same thing that happened to (Terry) Steinbach,” said Jocketty, recalling another veteran backstop who had turned down a free-agent offer from the Cardinals. “The guy would rather play at home instead of coming to a better situation. It’s tough to compete against that.”[1]

Though Girardi ultimately joined the Cardinals in 2003 to serve as Matheny’s backup, his decision to play in Chicago meant Jocketty had to pivot. This time, the Cardinals pursued Matheny, who had lived in Weldon Springs, Missouri, the past three years. Matheny’s wife Kristin grew up in Chesterfield.

“She must have some powerful prayers because we really didn’t think about the Cardinals being interested in us,” Matheny said.[2]

The Brewers drafted Matheny in the eighth round of the 1991 draft after his junior year at the University of Michigan. He made his major-league debut as a 23-year-old in 1993, and over five seasons with the Brewers he hit .231/278/.334. In 1996, Matheny set career highs with eight homers and 46 RBIs, though he hit just .204 that year.

After the 1998 season, Matheny signed a one-year deal with the Blue Jays. As a backup to Darrin Fletcher, Matheny appeared in 57 games, batting .215.

“I wish I could take a little of the enthusiasm I feel when I’m behind the plate and have it when I get in the batter’s box,” Matheny said. “I just love being behind the plate, all the strategy that goes unseen there. But I’m working on my other perspectives. I am working on revamping my swing and improving in the things that have held my statistics back.”[3]

Though he also received an offer to return to the Brewers and also received interest from the Yankees and Rockies, Matheny signed a one-year, $750,000 contract with the Cardinals.[4]

The deal included a team option for 2001, but when he was asked if his new contract included any incentives, Matheny said, “No, I’ve never been a big fan of incentives. I’ve got a job that should be incentive enough.”[5]

To make room for Matheny, the Cardinals designated outfielder Darren Bragg for assignment.

“We feel that Matheny gives us solid depth behind the plate,” Jocketty said. “He is very good defensively and he knows how to handle a pitching staff well.”[6]

Emphasizing that the Cardinals were prioritizing defense at the position, manager Tony La Russa made it clear that the starting job would be up for grabs at spring training.

“Matheny is going to get a real opportunity,” he said in January. “That pitching staff is going to have to be caught. … The guy who gets back there can contribute to winning more defensively than offensively.”[7]

“My perspective is full of cliches,” Mathey said. “I will just fill whatever role the team needs. I like to think I’m an unselfish player and will be helpful whether I’m playing or not. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in playing, because I am. I just want to help this team win however I can.”[8]

When Matheny arrived in St. Petersburg for spring training, however, he failed to impress offensively or defensively. Less than two weeks away from the Cardinals’ season opener, Matheny was batting .091, Marrero was batting .100, and Rick Wilkins was batting .217.

“We were surprised … that he wasn’t better defensively than he was,” La Russa said. “He was trying so hard he was suffocating his ability. … He wanted it so bad he was trying too hard.”[9]

Matheny’s spring finally turned with a phone call from his wife Kristin.

“She’s always been really positive,” Matheny said. “I’m sitting here wondering where the rest of my career is going to go, and I can’t do anything right. Last year was a situation I had been in before, where I felt I didn’t rise to the occasion. She told me everything works itself out and to rely on my faith. It’s amazing how strong she is and the faith she has in me. It was real comforting to hear her say that.”[10]

Before the month was over, Matheny had raised his spring average 118 points.

“All of a sudden, the shackles came off and he came to life,” La Russa said. “He was a dark horse coming in. He had to make a first impression, a middle impression, and an ending impression. Every impression he made was good, better, better.”[11]

Matheny started 117 games that season, batting a career-high .261 while throwing out 46 of 90 would-be base stealers. He was rewarded that fall with the first Gold Glove Award of his career.

“My approach to the game is so defensive-minded,” Matheny said. “It’s something that is hard to calibrate how you are doing sometimes. You get feedback from the pitching staff about it, but something like this award, where other managers vote on it, it means a lot to find out how your peers and the other coaches view you. The only thing that could mean more would be to hear that from your teammates and the fans.”[12]

The only disappointment for Matheny came that fall, as an accident with a hunting knife given to him as a birthday gift severed the tendon in his right ring finger, forcing him to miss the postseason. As a result, Matheny could only watch as Rick Ankiel melted down in Game 1 of the NLDS, forever changing the phenom’s career path.

After the season, the Cardinals exercised their $900,000 option on Matheny.

“He did an outstanding job for us,” Jocketty said. “He was a valuable part of our club that we missed in the postseason. His offense was a huge plus. I don’t think we expected him to hit .260.”[13]

After the 2001 season, the Cardinals signed Matheny to a three-year contract that solidified his role on the team. Though Matheny never hit as high as .261 again, his toughness and defense helped the Cardinals rise to the top of the National League.

In 2003, he won the Gold Glove Award again with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage while playing 1,096 innings.

“The first one was very exciting. It’s something that I never dreamed might happen,” Matheny said. “But you do it once, and it could be a lot of things. To do it a second time says it’s not a fluke. It’s very special.”[14]

Between August 2, 2002, and August 4, 2004, Matheny played 252 games without committing an error, setting a new record for MLB catchers. Along the way, he earned the respect of his teammates. In January 2004, Matheny was named the first recipient of the Darryl Kile Award, voted upon by Cardinals players and given to a player who embodied Kile’s spirit, determination, and professionalism.

After the 2004 season, which included the major-league debut of prized catching prospect Yadier Molina, Matheny signed a three-year contract with the Giants. He retired following the 2006 season due the effects of post-concussion syndrome.

In five seasons in St. Louis, Matheny hit .245 with 29 homers and 221 RBIs. He retired with a .994 fielding percentage and four Gold Glove awards.

In November 2011, just 15 days after La Russa announced his retirement, the Cardinals announced that they had hired Matheny to manage the club. In seven seasons as the Cardinals’ manager, he led the team to a 591-474 record with three Central Division championships and one National League pennant.

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[1] Rick Hummel, “With Girardi now gone, Cards’ search goes on,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 12, 1999.

[2] Mike Eisenbath, “Free agent Matheny joins the Cardinals’ catching corps,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 17, 1999.

[3] Mike Eisenbath, “Free agent Matheny joins the Cardinals’ catching corps,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 17, 1999.

[4] Mike Eisenbath, “Free agent Matheny joins the Cardinals’ catching corps,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 17, 1999.

[5] Mike Eisenbath, “Free agent Matheny joins the Cardinals’ catching corps,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 17, 1999.

[6] Joe Ostermeier, “Cards sign catcher Matheny to share duties with Marrero,” Belleville News-Democrat, December 17, 1999.

[7] Rick Hummel, “La Russa now knows better than to make predictions,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 23, 2000.

[8] Mike Eisenbath, “Free agent Matheny joins the Cardinals’ catching corps,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 17, 1999.

[9] Rick Hummel, “A year makes a big difference for Gold Glove winner Matheny,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 20, 2001.

[10] Rick Hummel, “A year makes a big difference for Gold Glove winner Matheny,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 20, 2001.

[11] Rick Hummel, “A year makes a big difference for Gold Glove winner Matheny,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 20, 2001.

[12] Mike Eisenbath, “Edmonds, Matheny win Gold Gloves for fielding prowess,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 8, 2000.

[13] David Wilhelm, “Hentgen cut, Matheny will be back,” Belleville News-Democrat, October 31, 2000.

[14] Dan O’Neill, “Color the Gold Gloves red again,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 6, 2003.