10/20/12 6:50 PM ET
Matheny's mettle resonates with current players
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
If the Cardinals coveted toughness in their replacement for longtime manager Tony La Russa, one of those old Milwaukee teammates figures they got their guy.
"He was a catcher, so it's kind of weird for an outfielder to say this," said Geoff Jenkins, a rookie in Matheny's final season in Milwaukee. "But I emulated him. I looked up to him. He was a guy who taught us the right way to play the game. You keep your mouth shut and do your job."
Jenkins added: "And, man, Mikey was tough."
May 26, 1998, was a great spring night for baseball at Milwaukee County Stadium; 70 degrees at first pitch and the Brewers only five weeks into their tenure as a National League ballclub. The Pirates were in town for a battle of teams hovering just below .500, but they played a spirited game. Pittsburgh took a 1-0 lead on a fourth-inning sacrifice fly, Milwaukee answered in the seventh on Matheny's RBI single, and Pittsburgh pushed ahead again in the eighth on another sacrifice fly for a 2-1 lead.
That score lasted into the bottom of the ninth inning, when hard-throwing Pirates right-hander Rich Loiselle -- a Wisconsin native, for what it's worth -- took the mound and found trouble. A flyout sandwiched between a pair of Brewers singles put runners at first and second base for Matheny, who looked at Strike 1 before settling back into the box.
"I was the kind of player who had to grind every at-bat," said Matheny, who was 27 then, seven years removed from being the Brewers' eighth-round Draft pick and in his third full Major League season.
Phil Garner, the Brewers' manager, was trying to help his young catcher grind. Matheny's weakness was breaking balls in the dirt, so Garner demanded a sleeve of golf balls every time Matheny struck out on such a pitch.
"I think he's still using those balls today," Matheny said. "I gave him plenty.
"But, point taken. I needed to stay in there and see the ball."
So it was that Matheny stood his ground when Loiselle threw the next pitch high and tight. Trouble was, this was no breaking ball.
It was a fastball, 90 mph according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and 95 mph according to the Associated Press. Whatever the precise velocity, it struck the right-handed hitting Matheny flush on the left side of his face.
"Wow," Jenkins said, thinking back.
The Brewers' TV men were Matt Vasgersian, now of the MLB Network and FOX, and Bill Schroeder, who still works Brewers games today. At first, they both thought -- hoped -- the pitch had struck Matheny's helmet.
Matheny took one step back. He calmly rested his bat on the ground and put his left hand on his hip.
"He never went down, first of all, which is amazing," Vasgersian said. "It was almost like when a fly flies in your mouth. You try to spit it out and go, 'What was that?' Like he was annoyed more than anything."
This was no fly, and home-plate umpire Jerry Crawford and Pirates catcher Jason Kendall knew it. They immediately signaled madly to the Brewers' bench for help.
That's about the time Matheny spit out his first big mouthful of blood.
"I remember [athletic trainer] Roger Caplinger running out there with a towel, basically holding his face together," Jenkins said.
Said Vasgersian: "He spit out blood, a couple of teeth, probably some cartilage, a chunk of his gums and some grey matter from his brain."
After the game, Matheny approached Jeff Cirillo, a fellow '91 Draft pick and his oldest friend in the organization.
"He comes over to me and asks if he went down," Cirillo said. "With an open mouth, I said, 'No.'
"And he said, 'Good.'"
Matheny needed four stitches in his mouth. He was thankful that it wasn't worse.
And he was already thinking ahead to the next day's game.
"I praise God that I didn't get hit in the eye," Matheny said. "It was just a couple of teeth and a bunch of stitches, and I was able to go to Phil Garner right from the hospital and say, 'If you can do me any favor, I want to play tomorrow.'
"He's sitting there, smoking his stogie, and he laughed at me. But the next day, he put me in there. I think he wanted to make a statement to the other players, too. Any time you have a player that gets banged up, and still does everything to be out there and be productive, you encourage that. I felt like I could be productive. I felt like I could help that team win. That was the lesson."
Matheny indeed played the next day -- purple, swollen jaw and all. A curious umpiring crew asked Matheny to remove his mask before the game and show them his face.
"I remember Bobby Hughes [the backup catcher] going, 'My God, I can't even get a start when this guy gets hit in the face!'" Jenkins said.
Matheny went 0-for-4, but threw out a would-be base stealer in the eighth inning of what became a 10-inning, 3-2 Brewers win. Matheny was cheered warmly by Brewers fans that day and every other time he stepped foot onto a baseball field in Milwaukee, even when he moved on to play for the Cardinals and Giants.
"Here's what stands out, if you ask me," Vasgersian said. "When we think of the guy who gets hit in the mouth and doesn't even flinch, we think of the big, dumb knucklehead that's trying to be a tough guy. Mike is tough, yes, but he has a humanity that almost belies his sense of toughness."
Here's the thing about this story:
Brewers fans remember the blood. Matheny remembers the outcome.
His hit by pitch loaded the bases for Brewers shortstop Jose Valentin, who had struck out in all three of his previous at-bats that night. With one out in the ninth, Valentin smacked a walk-off single to center field. Jenkins scored the winning run from second base.
"That was a big part of that story for me," Matheny said. "It was the ninth inning, and I was just trying to stay in and fight. That's what we teach these guys now -- grind out at-bats.
"If these guys [his current Cardinals] see that video, then maybe it makes an impression. But if you're trying to teach lessons about toughness, I think that's pretty sad. The way you go about your business should speak to your toughness."
Some of current Cardinals were asked this week during the National League Championship series whether they had seen the video of their rookie manager from May 26, 1998. Closer Jason Motte and some of the relievers had. Third baseman David Freese had not.
So Freese asked the Cardinals' video guru to find the footage, and he watched it before Game 4 of the NLCS on Thursday.
"What an animal," he said with a big smile.
"Right when he got nailed, you could tell his first thought was, 'Don't go down,'" Freese said. "He walked it off with a mouthful of blood. That says something about what kind of guy he is."
But does it speak to Matheny as a manager?
"Absolutely," Freese said. "His toughness is something we feed off of. He loves to win. That play right there shows the type of competitor he is."
Said Motte: "He's a tough son of a gun. I knew that beforehand because I've seen some of the hits he's taken as a catcher. I used to catch, so I watch guys. He was a tough son of a gun back there, and that's kind of what you have to be."
That particular hit-by-pitch, of course, was not the only proof of Matheny's mettle. This is a man who endured 25-30 concussions in his career as a catcher -- one of the first of which Vasgersian saw in person when he was on the radio call for Double-A El Paso in 1993, when, coincidentally, a Cardinals prospect crushed Matheny in a collision at home plate.
A particularly nasty series of blows in 2006 finally knocked Matheny out. Five and a half years later, he was the manager of the reigning World Champions.
"Anybody who went after Tony La Russa was going to be pretty scrutinized," said Jenkins, the onetime Brewers teammate. "But Cardinals fans have to realize that Matheny watched [La Russa] for a few years and played for him. He was being groomed while he was playing. If anybody was going to be prepared for that job, I think Mikey was a great choice."