Here are a few excerpts:
Catchers are the quarterbacks of baseball. “It’s constant motion,” he said in a phone interview last week. “The job of a catcher is often undervalued as to the success he brings to the team as a whole; it’s constant managing. People talk about why so many catchers are managers. That’s because they’re managing people. Catchers are managing not just the pitchers, but they’re also managing other position players as well. They’re trying to get everyone on the same page. The best catchers typically do that sort of thing.”
Matheny quietly and confidently managed many games during his playing career. Known as one of the best catchers, he smoothly handled the entire game. Catchers lead their team in many ways: They can distract batters on the opposing team, work with the umpire, handle the pitcher, and control the running game. A catcher in tune with his teammates’ endurance and talent works with the manager in making moves to keep the game in line.
Handling the pitcher is one of the most important tasks for a catcher. One key element for Matheny is, “to have the sense to be able to get away from a pitcher’s strength when he doesn’t have it that particular day and develop his second best pitch.”
“Through the course of five games you probably have a pitcher who is probably not sharp that day,” Matheny said, recalling the joy he felt in working with a pitcher and helping him along. “It happens so often it’s hard to think of a specific instance. Just like the hitting coach who very rarely has a chance to kick back. With eight position players, he’s probably got a couple of them who are struggling. It’s the same thing for a catcher. He constantly has pitchers who he’s trying to get right. You never know how they’re going to show up from day to day. So often it would happen where the guys trusted me, along with some of the great coaches I worked with, to put a good game plan together for them.”
And to end:
The impact of his concussions on his family was severe. “My kids are all very athletic, and always had some sport that they were playing. We enjoy the outdoors and our family would spend most of our time together outside playing. Our favorite family game is without a doubt, whiffle ball. While I was recovering from the concussions, I was not able to do much of anything. I was not able to get my heart rate up, so I couldn’t play any kind of games with the kids.”
He soon realized more was at stake than just his baseball career and he retired from baseball on Feb. 1, 2007.
It was an odd twist of fate for one of the toughest guys in baseball. His cognitive process, which had produced his catching brilliance since the age of 10, became the deciding factor in ending his career.
When asked if he thinks his story has helped other major league players, he said, “I think guys are more aware. Before, if they told me I had a concussion they might as well have told me I had a bad haircut, it didn’t really matter. It meant absolutely nothing to me. As soon as they told me I had a concussion I knew I was going to go back out there the next day. And if there was a play at the plate I was going to get run over again. It had no meaning to it.
“I think now guys are getting concerned. You see concussions now with umpires, outfielders and obviously catchers. It’s in other sports as well. Its more prevalent even than what’s being noticed, especially in sports like football. Fortunately, baseball contracts allow you to try and take care of your body without having to make yourself do something you shouldn’t be doing.”
When the Cardinals traded Matheny to Giants, many fans in St. Louis were saddened. Due to his short playing time in San Francisco, though he won the Willie Mac Award in 2005 and was greatly respected, he is not remembered there as he is in St. Louis. But now, years later when asked to look back on the reaction to his retirement, Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle told me, “I think fans were stunned that a couple of foul balls on one series could spell the end of his career. They knew from our stories how good a catcher and person he was and sympathized with his plight. I think of him every time a catcher takes a foul ball off the mask, and hope he is doing well.”
Collins, the UMPC official, agreed: “Mike Matheny is one of the greatest representatives of professional sports that I have ever come across.”
Such a legacy is one we should not forget. Ultimately his head, which gave brilliance to the game of baseball for 13 years but that has caused him so much pain, will continue to lead him. He brings too much knowledge, leadership and passion for making people better for his talents not to be continually in use to Major League Baseball.
“The last thing in the world I wanted to be was a poster boy for a career ending injury,” said Matheny.
Many times our end is the beginning. For Mike Matheny a career ending injury was really the beginning—the beginning of the sports world caring about the long term effects of concussions. His baseball story might have taken a different turn than he expected, but it’s far from over. His career; past, present, and future, will continue to represent the game of baseball well.