An interview with Mike Matheny: when your head leads you

The pitch comes flying across home plate and the clean thud against his glove is heard by the umpire behind him. His body doesn’t flinch as his glove closes around the ball, steady and sure. A strike is called because both the ball and the umpire were framed. This is the head of Mike Matheny, taking a border-line pitch to the bull’s eye of the umpire’s strike zone.

He calls time and rips off his mask of steel. He takes slow commanding strides out to the mound. His control of the game slows down his high maintenance pitcher. This is the head of Mike Matheny—confident, cool and collected.

In the midst of a whirl of dust and steel cleats he dives headfirst toward home plate, blocking the base runner. He tags him and holds the ball high in the air to prove his victory in the tangled human mess. This is the head of Mike Matheny, saving a run for the St. Louis Cardinals in the clinching game of the 2002 National League Division series.

The head of Mike Matheny, who played 13 years in the majors and earned four NL Gold Glove awards, always led the way for him during his playing career. Matheny played for Milwaukee (1994-98), Toronto (1999), St. Louis (2000-2004) and the Giants (2005-2006). His career ended in 2006 due to lingering post-concussion symptoms.

Mike Matheny’s life and career form a very important example to the sports community on the value of an athlete’s quality of life. He shows the importance and value of the human brain—when in its prime genius as a major league catcher and when it has been shaken so much that damaging chemical changes occur.

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.”

Matheny’s career was filled with examples of pitchers who trusted his ability to manage their very livelihood, who trusted him to give them the support they needed. “The best compliments I ever had were from the pitchers and the fact that they felt they needed me behind the plate. They knew I made them better. That was the ultimate compliment for a catcher. Then when your coaching staff and manager believed the same thing a lot of times, that was where you got your reward. Not necessarily in the contract.”

Pitcher Jamey Wright was one of the many who understood this about Mike Matheny. Wright’s 2006 season with the San Francisco Giants started off strong, but on May 31, following a series of foul tips to his mask, Matheny landed on the disabled list. Wright told the Dallas Morning News, “I can sum up what happened in two words: Mike Matheny. He got hurt, and I started to lose confidence. I’m not the only guy who struggled there after he got hurt.”

When Matheny first landed on the DL with a concussion he had his own set of concerns to deal with. “The first nine months were really scary. It took almost 18 months until I felt like I could do things that I was doing right before I was hurt. That was a pretty scary time and very eye opening.”

“My problems were always with the cognitive stuff, not being able to put things together or even being able to speak right at times. It was bizarre how my concussions went. The headaches and that sort of stuff were there, but they weren’t any big deal to me. I could just tell my mind wasn’t working right.”

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.”

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program is the world leader in diagnosis, evaluation and management of the neurocognitive effects of sports-related concussions. The assistant director of the program, Dr. Michael Collins, told me, “Major League Baseball has done a great job in recent years in handling and treating concussions. The fruits of that are born out of Mike Matheny and his injury. He was a crucial element to a lot of teams understanding what this injury can do.”

In part because of the UPMC concussion center, today Mike Matheny feels few effects of his post concussion symptoms. “Every once in a while,” he said, “when I’m doing labor-related stuff, my heart rate goes up a little, but for the most part, cognitively it has healed.”

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.

Thanks to Mike Matheny for his gracious interview, and to Steve Treder, Jeffrey Gross and Tuck! at The Hardball Times for their insights into the Giants organization. Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle deserves thanks as well for kindly responding with such thought to my email. Also, Dr. Collins, who so kindly took time from his busy schedule to talk to me, is owed many thanks. Without the exceptional work of Dr. Collins and the staff at the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, the lives of many professional athletes would not look so bright.

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12 years ago

Fascinating article, Anna.  Though not an avid baseball fan, reading this helps me to understand why so many people LOVE baseball.  Thanks for the peek into the heart of the players and the fans.

12 years ago

This might be my favorite yet!! Who would have ever thought concussions had such an impact?!?  I’m with the thoughts in the article—they’d be right back at it next game and that was it!!  I love that you got input from so many people in writing this, too. I thought the intro was very attention grabbing, as well!! I felt like I was there watching it all take place.  Made me excited for some real-life baseball watching smile

Max L
12 years ago

Glad to read that Matheny is doing much better. Thanks for writing this article. Seeing Posey took a couple of foul balls off his mask last night was jarring the memory of Matheny.

12 years ago

As a Cardinals fan who remembers fondly his playing days in St. Louis, and one of those fans who was saddened by his departure, I enjoyed this look at a good player and great man.  The catcher’s job is often under-appreciated by the non-baseball fan, and he was certainly one of the best.  And the fact that more people came to know how great a person he is off the field is more gratifying.  Thank you, Anna.

Lee Garner
12 years ago

A wonderful article, Anna!  Matheny has always been a class act.

More, please!

Jim & Marilyn MCDonald
12 years ago

Wonderful story! You are a very good writer and we need more like you.  Lots of luck.

Art Bickel
12 years ago

Anna – Very well done. Keep me in the loop.

walt kovacs
12 years ago

since matheny, catcher’s masks have undergone a total redesign…making them much safer

but it is still better to be safe than sorry and most teams need to sit a catcher at least one game after he takes one or more foul balls off his mask

lisa gray
12 years ago

there have now been 3 or 4 guys whose careers have been cut short by concussion

corey koskie, for example. and jason bay has missed almost the whole season.

i checked this out – was curious – concussion is actually from bruising the brain against the skull – kind of like shaken baby only not as severe. and more damage is done when the team sends the guy back out – increases the injury. it isn’t “macho” it is just dumb.

i’m glad that matheny has gotten so much better and seems to have returned to normal. i read that koskie hasn’t…

Rob & Jenn
12 years ago

Nice article.  Well laid out.

12 years ago

Such a quiet leader.
He was fun to watch.  when he got hurt right berfore the Playoffs/World Series? you knew the Cards were done.  he was that good.
Good article..It’s nice to read and learn about the heroes around us and not the fallen…..