ST. LOUIS — They could have been battery mates back in the day, back when John Farrell was trying to hang on as a major league reliever, just as Mike Matheny was trying to establish himself as a major league catcher. Now, as they oppose each other in the World Series — not as pitcher and hitter, but pushing the buttons and pulling the levers as managers — they find themselves in similar circumstances.
Farrell works for a franchise, the Boston Red Sox, that is just a year removed from a manager who won its only two World Series titles in the past 95 years. Matheny took over for a sure Hall of Famer who won two championships with the St. Louis Cardinals. The pressures and expectations of their fan bases are similar. Their paths to get there: wildly different.
Matheny, in so many ways, would be considered a traditional choice to replace Tony La Russa, who retired after the Cardinals won the 2011 World Series. He was a catcher, and conventional wisdom holds that catchers are better prepared to be managers because they must think so deeply about both sides of the game. He knew the Cardinals organization, having served as a catcher here from 2000 to 2004.
But in other ways, Matheny was an outlier. Essentially, he left the game after his retirement after the 2006 season. The most his resume showed was time spent as a spring training instructor with the Cardinals. How, possibly, could he walk from the street to the dugout, take the baton from La Russa, and take the Cardinals to the postseason twice in two years?
“When I looked at Mike in an aggregate sense, we were thinking about him in terms of he had so many other things that he did that it outweighed a major factor, and that’s experience,” Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak said. “But still, thinking in the end about him knowing about this culture, what this city is about, knowing what the expectations were here — and also just surrounding him with a staff that would support him, which is a critical part that a lot of people overlook — we thought he had all the right qualities.”
Matheny, 43, looks as if he could still be playing, but he immediately set a different tone than La Russa, whose presence engulfed the whole franchise. “He’s a lot different than Tony,” infielder Daniel Descalso said.
It started from that first winter he was hired. Matheny, who lived in St. Louis, was in his Busch Stadium office every day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., trying to plan out spring training, from drills to schedules to instructors to lineups.
That preparation is similar to that of a catcher, who is in on every pre-series and pregame meeting. But players said Matheny doesn’t let the preparation — the numbers — overtake his every move.
“He uses instincts,” said catcher Yadier Molina, a rookie on the 2004 Cardinals. “He knows what he feels about it. He’s not scared to do anything.”
Mostly, he’s not scared to admit he doesn’t know everything about a situation.
“There’s something new every day that you don’t quite expect,” Matheny said. “I want to try to learn something every day. So you want the new challenges and opportunities to grow and learn.”
Farrell, 51, learned a bit differently. When his playing career ended — he went 36-46 with a 4.36 ERA in stints with Cleveland, the California Angels and Detroit from 1987 to 1996 — he took a job as the pitching coach at Oklahoma State University, his alma mater. After five seasons in that role, the Indians hired him as the director of player development, overseeing the farm system. This, Farrell believes, was an essential part of his development.
“Probably the thing that stands out most is dealing with individual players and having some compassion toward cases where guys have needs and not to turn away from their abilities because they might be struggling at a certain point in time in their career,” Farrell said. “And I think more than anything, just trying to stay aware to their needs and what might help them fulfill their potential. That strikes right at home at the farm director job. And that’s served me as much as anything going forward than any role.”
He was named the manager of the Red Sox — succeeding the disastrous Bobby Valentine — only after he served as Boston’s pitching coach from 2007 to 2010, which included the second of the franchise’s two World Series titles with then-manager Terry Francona. After he managed for two seasons in Toronto, Boston General Manager Ben Cherington orchestrated a trade to bring Farrell back. He immediately infused the clubhouse with something that was lost under Valentine: trust.
“From the day he walked in, from the first day of spring training, he set the right tone,” veteran outfielder Shane Victorino said. “He knows we have a veteran team. He’ll tell us what he needs, but he knows we can handle ourselves. That means a lot to guys.”
Saturday night in Game 3 of a World Series that is tied, a pitcher will manage one side, a catcher the other. Each has the respect of his players, each has the trust of its city. And neither traveled the traditional path to get to those Busch Stadium dugouts.