By R.B. FALLSTROM, Associated Press
JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — Mike Matheny fields the question that comes pretty much on a daily basis with the dexterity of the four-time Gold Glove catcher he used to be.
He insists there is no point trying to replace Tony La Russa. Just like there's no point trying to replicate Albert Pujols' bat.
What Matheny promises is that he will work nonstop to keep the St. Louis Cardinals among baseball's elite, just as he did when top-notch defense was enough to get him in the lineup despite a bat that was so-so at best. He isn't interested in comparisons with La Russa, who abruptly retired a few months ago with another World Series title and just a handful of wins away from being the second-winningest manager in history.
Like La Russa, Matheny often leaves the stadium after dark.
"My family's down here now and they've been great understanding that I'm going to be good for about dinner and that's it," Matheny said. "We're at the period right now."
The 41-year-old Matheny senses no satisfaction with players who won it all last fall, noting that most reported well ahead of Friday's first full-squad workout. Beforehand, he told players they'd work hard and work smart, and urged them just to concern themselves with things they can control.
"We're going to be efficient, we're not going to keep you guys out here all day, we're not going to be standing still ever," Matheny said. "It's about the work ethic and the efficiency. I'm beating up a couple terms, excellence and respect. We go about our business that way, there's going to be good things at the end."
Matheny also told players that Pujols' departure in no way lessens expectations and it was OK to have a "chip on the shoulder" about it.
"There's a lot of guys here with things to prove," he said, "and jobs to earn."
Among the first-day observers was Dick Phelps, who owned the Brewers' Class A team in Stockton, Calif., in 1992 when Matheny was a 21-year-old prospect on the team. Phelps remembers seeing leadership qualities in the young catcher, and also hooked up Matheny with agent John Boggs.
When Phelps' granted players' request for an extra $5 in meal money at one point in the season, he said Matheny was the only player who came by to thank him.
"Very good guy, very well-spoken," Phelps said. "At that age, Mike already had the rest of the players' respect."
The first workout featured a bit of irony, with Adam Wainwright throwing batting practice on the same field just a few days past the one-year anniversary of the elbow injury that sidelined him all of 2011. Wainwright totaled 39 wins in 2009-10.
"I looked at one of the pitching coaches before I started warming up and I said, 'What day is this?' He said, 'I don't know.' I said, 'It has to be about the same time and I'm going out on the same field,'" he said. "This gives me a chance to conquer it. This gives me a chance to get over that."
Day 1 wasn't overly serious business. Players had time to sign a few autographs and outfielder Lance Berkman lightened the mood by wearing a fake, dark brown mustache. .
Berkman is beginning his second year with the Cardinals and thought the regimen had the same feel as last year under La Russa. That goes for the new leader's unquestioned authority.
"Mike is great, he's got a great presence," Berkman said. "He's well-qualified to be a big league manager, there's no doubt about it, and I think he's going to do a great job. He already has the respect of every guy in here."
Matheny led by example on Friday, throwing batting practice to Matt Holliday and others. He'll delegate authority, but plans on being heavily involved with every aspect of the game, describing his style as a mix of CEO and micro manager.
"I want to have my eyes on everything, I always have," Matheny said. "I love to watch it all. It's not like I'm going to turn over the positioning of the infield and say 'you've got it' and it's done. And I'll know how we're going to be pitching because I'm going to be involved in the game plan, running game, outfield positioning, bunt defenses."
Matheny quickly anointed Jason Motte as his closer, declining to play La Russa-style mind games to keep the relievers on their toes.
What changes Matheny has made to the routine have been subtle. The compartmentalized two-page daily schedule is a carryover from the previous regime with separate listings for pitchers throwing bullpen sessions matched with specific catchers, and often with drills mixing veterans with prospects in an effort to promote organizational continuity.
He's not afraid to ditch elements, either.
For the first several days, Matheny included an inspirational thought at the bottom of the page, but discontinued it before position players reported, deciding it might be read as self-promotion.
"I just don't want to give the impression to these guys that this is a dog and pony show," Matheny said. "Those quotes were not just kind of fluff, it was meant to be something to those guys, and if it starts being more than that then I'm being phony."
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