Good luck, Mike
At the risk of two overly earnest posts in a short span, I didn’t want to let this sad news pass by without comment. Mike Matheny was a stathead’s punching bag because of his light offensive production, but he was a good guy to deal with, and undeniably a great teammate. It’s a shame he had to stop playing before he was ready.
Matheny was one of the very first guys I dealt with in my first spring on the beat. I was writing a feature on how playing time would be divided among the catchers in 2002. They were going to give Mike DiFelice a decent shot at some real time. So I talked to both guys about it. My first interaction — literally, first time I ever spoke with him — with Matheny was on this topic, and it wasn’t something he particularly wanted to talk about. I tried to coax something out of him by saying, ‘Hey, I’m just doing a look at the situation. I’m not trying to get you in trouble.’
His response? "You couldn’t even if you did try."
At the time I took it as a fairly snide comment, but as I got to know Matheny better, I realized that wasn’t it. It was just matter-of-fact. He knew where he stood. He knew what he could do, what he was about and what he needed to get done.
A couple of springs later, I was writing a piece on what Matheny meant to his pitchers — how much they respected and valued him, and how to some extent he was the conscience of the team and especially of the pitching staff. Several guys gave me good stuff, but Matt Morris put it all in one little story.
"It’s funny," Morris said. "There are games where the starters, we don’t execute pitches but we still win. Everybody’s high-fiving, but I take a peek at Matheny in the corner and he knows. I can see it in his eyes. Yeah, we won, and he’s happy about it. But it’s almost like I put my head down because he knows I got away with a couple."
Yet on the other hand, he would never, ever, EVER sell out his pitcher to a reporter. If the curveball was the perfect call, but the pitcher hung the curveball and it got hit out of the park, well, you can believe Matheny would tell us it was his fault. He should have called for the fastball, he’d say. Never mind that he made the right call. Doesn’t matter. He always had his pitcher’s back. You could scarcely even ask him about how a pitcher had turned things around recently, because it would be tantamount to an admission by him that the guy hadn’t been doing well before.
And that ties in with the other reason Matheny gave me the short answer he did in that first conversation. He took his pitchers’ failings intensely personally — and he’s the guy who fell on his sword again and again throughout Rick Ankiel’s struggles in 2001 and beyond. I wasn’t around in ’01, but several people who were told me that it was often up to Matheny to stand up for Ankiel, to answer the questions after another mystifying and disheartening outing. He did it, because that was part of his job. But he hated it. And he, according to friends and colleagues of mine, became much more guarded as a result of it. I didn’t see him before; didn’t know him before the 2000 playoffs. But I can say this — as Ank’s wildness became more and more a distant memory, Matheny became even better to deal with. He relaxed more.
Matheny was a lifetime 239/293/344 hitter, but he was a **** of a teammate, and that’s worth something. There’s a reason he won the first Darryl Kile Award, voted on by his teammates. And there’s a reason he was a two-time nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award. I hope he gets some good family time — and then comes back as a coach soon.
(currently playing on the speakers: Elvis Costello, When I Was Cruel)