A few years ago, Mike Matheny was coaching a youth baseball team. He wrote what has become known as the Matheny Manifesto, a letter to his team’s parents. “I always said that the only team I would coach would be a team of orphans,” the letter began before asking parents to butt out of coaching.
“I got to tell you, I was blown away by the response that I got,” Matheny told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh. “It was only meant for those 12 sets of parents to read, just to kind of know where I took a stand. But somehow it hit the Internet.”
Now Matheny is the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, and has turned his manifesto into a book, “The Matheny Manifesto: A Young Manager’s Old-School Views on Success in Sports and Life.”
Matheny said he got the idea for the letter when he was taking his own children to the ballfield for practice.
“It was just an elevated expectation and there was just so much that seemed to be riding on these kids’ success in youth sports,” he said. “Parents were just losing their minds, screaming at their kids all through the game. Yelling at them to get their elbow up. Just nonstop badgering to where you could see the kids were checking out. That translated into yelling at coaches. It translated into yelling at umpires. I think people just lost perspective of what youth sports should be about.”
For Matheny, playing on youth teams was about loving the game, he said.
“My job’s about winning, but we have a bunch of professionals who are being compensated to go out and win baseball games,” Matheny said. “I think it needs to be reinforced to people at the lower levels, especially when kids are just starting out, the focus and the goal doesn’t necessarily have to be that you’re successful only if you go out and win every single game. Much more can be learned from times of those losses, and how to teach kids to persevere. There’s so much failure inside the game of baseball. It’s a great platform to teach kids about discipline and improving.”
But that doesn’t mean every kid deserves a trophy for showing up either, Matheny said.
“I believe (the trophy) is for the teams that come together and work hardest, improved and figured out a way to win,” he said. “But I also believe that you need to figure out a way to create fun. I remember my parents always took me — we went and got ice cream, win, lose or draw. That was just part of the fun.”
Matheny said the skills that kids learn on the field will serve them throughout life, whether they go on to play sports professionally or not. Professional athletes have raw talent, he said, but by then it’s about “all the little things” that really matter. “It’s the discipline that comes with being able to handle all the pressure that comes. It’s the mental toughness. It’s the constant learning. It’s an idea of team,” he said.
In “The Matheny Manifesto,” the Cardinals manager uses current and former teammates as examples of ideal teammates. Among them are Adam Wainwright and Mark McGwire.
“I’m very, very fortunate to have the leadership that I have on our field,” Matheny said. “That starts with Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday — our veteran presence. Adam embodies so many things that this organization stands for. He stands for an absolute fierce competitor, but also a guy who understands his obligation to be a great member of society and to be the kind of player that attracts our fans and goes out and makes a difference in our community. What he brings to our clubhouse, as far as consistency and leadership and example for our young pitchers, is absolutely invaluable.
“Mark was a guy to me that really did a terrific job of handling fans,” he said. “I just always admired how he understood the lifeblood of our game is our fan base. He would stop and he’d shake a young fan’s hand and he would engage and he’d catch eyes with them and have a sincere conversation. I just remember thinking that’s how a superstar should handle, with humility, handle the position that they have been given.
“I feel very proud to have had Mark as a teammate,” Matheny said. “Our game was tainted by the steroid era, there’s no question about it. There was cheating, there’s no doubt. There were so many things that Mark himself was able to do that had nothing to do with performance-enhancing drugs, but that’s always going to hang there.”
As the Cardinals prepare for spring training, Matheny said he expects some of the life lessons from youth sports will come into play this season, especially as the team deals with the death of Oscar Taveras.
“It puts things into perspective in real life and real loss,” Matheny said. “Those are conversations that we’ll continue to have in spring training, and talk about how fragile life is. Talk about the urgency of making today count. This isn’t some sort of way to conjure up extra effort to win more games. It comes back full circle to those things we were talking about with the kids and with parents and with youth sports: I feel I have the same responsibility with our players who are playing at the highest level. Let’s not lose sight of the bigger things. Let’s talk about some priorities. Let’s talk about the more important things in your life and how we should be spending our time and investing it into other people and into our families. And then making good decisions, and the ramifications that obviously come when we don’t.”
"The Matheny Manifesto" book signing
- When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015
- Where: Barnes & Noble, Fenton Commons Shopping Center, 721 Gravois Road, Fenton
- More information
“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.