May 10, 2011
Thirteen-year MLB veteran and three-time Gold Glove Award winner Mike Matheny will be Michigan's keynote speaker at the annual end-of-year senior baseball banquet held Saturday, May 21, approximately one hour after the conclusion of U-M's 4 p.m. game against Penn State. Matheny (1989-91), a co-captain for the Wolverines in 1991 and a winner of the Ray Fisher Award that season, took time out to talk to MGoBlue.com about his time at Michigan, his MLB playing career and trip to the World Series, and what he is going to say in his speech on the 21st.
Q: Coming out of high school, especially in Ohio State territory, what were the main reasons that you chose to attend the University of Michigan?
A: "Searching through different schools, I was actually everybody's second choice, and rightfully so. There was a kid out of a school called Watterson, which is right there in the Columbus area also, named Mike Durant. Mike was a great high school catcher. He was a grown man, I was a kid. I was underdeveloped. I grew when I got to school, but he was the first choice of all of the schools that we were both looking at. Michigan, Ohio State, Tennessee and Nebraska were the four that I was researching and I was sitting back and waiting. I was really hoping that he was not going to U of M, but they were recruiting him pretty heavily and I think what drew me there at the time was that it was a powerhouse. They were the perennial power in the Big Ten. Every year, they were right there in the thick of it. All of that made me want to get up there and see Michigan, and once I got up to Ann Arbor it was a done deal where I wanted to go."
Q: When you get here, you're on a regional team and a team that won the Big Ten regular-season title. Describe how special that season was?
A: "It was great, especially coming in and not expecting to play as a freshman, going in with a very strong team. I believe we set a Big Ten record. We were about 25-5 in Big Ten play in 1989 and about one out away from going to the College World Series. And that was the same year that the basketball team won the national championship. It was a special year to be a Wolverine."
Q: How would do describe your Michigan experience on and off the field?
A: "I spent three years at Michigan while I was playing and then came back for two more to finish my degree, so it was really a short period of time compared to some of the other organizations I have been with. I was in Milwaukee's organization for nine years. But it is amazing how that little bit of time is a defining period in your life. It is something that I have a great deal of pride about and something that I'll get to explain to the boys when I get a chance to talk to them. People ask, `Did you sign out of high school? Did you go to college?' and once you tell them that you went to the University of Michigan it certainly raises some eyebrows. You can see that there is a sense of respect for the school and the tradition and the education that's there. Obviously, the baseball side was phenomenal. We had a great group of players; I think nine guys were drafted out of my class, so we were always competitive. The academic side is challenging but rewarding at the same time. And the social stuff was just a kid trying to figure things out and enjoying the ability to have a little freedom while also having a great athletic department looking over the shoulder directing you the right way."
Q: How did it prepare you for the next step in your life; playing professional baseball?
A: "I tell people that I was drafted out of high school very late by the Blue Jays and I graduated at about 5' 11, 180 pounds. I grew almost five inches in college. I was physically immature, but I was also emotionally immature and I was nowhere near ready for that jump. The Blue Jays made a very good offer the day I was going to my first class, since they had my rights up until that day, and it was very tempting. I have no way of looking into a crystal ball and seeing, but I'm pretty confident that I wouldn't have made it very long. The Minor Leagues are tough, and without having the maturity and a lot of accountability and that self drive that comes from being exposed to what's out there. I believe college is a great segue into being prepared for professional ball and being prepared for life, especially trying to balance everything. You learn time management skills athletically and academically, and help you enjoy life. I think that's one of the biggest benefits of being a student-athlete."
Q: You were known for your exceptional defense in the Majors. How much pride did you take in being one of the best if not the best defensive catchers in baseball?
A: "It's been a great ride. It's been a weird ride being released twice, but I got to that point where I could develop myself into that sort of player. That happened when I got to St. Louis. I was almost out of the game twice, so it's just such a great game of adversity and perseverance because there is so much failure along the way. There are a lot of people constantly telling you that you can or cannot do something, so I think it prepares you for the game of life. What a great opportunity it was for me to get a new life in St. Louis and fit in perfectly with the style of team that they had. They were offensively powerful already, they just needed somebody to help guide the pitching staff and I found my niche there. Four postseasons and one World Series later and I really got to see what winning baseball at the highest level is all about. That was a great reward."
Q: Talk about your role with the Cardinals as a Special Assistant in Player Development?
A: "It's been a great fit staying involved with the game and the organization that has been so good to me. Tony La Russa has been exceptional in trying to keep me involved. My role is showing up and taking care of all the catchers nearing spring training and working them out before games start. I try to get them into shape. After that I spend some time with the minor league guys. Right now, I'm heading down to Memphis with my team, but I will be working tonight with Triple-A catchers, giving them a tune-up, just making sure we don't have anything radical going on. We have had some fun with the development of these guys. It's great to stay a part, because once you get out of baseball it doesn't take long before you're forgotten. The organization has been great with keeping me around."
Q: You had a successful 13-year career in the majors and one of the highlights had to have been going to the World Series in 2004. Talk about that time in your career.
A: "I didn't really get the chance to relish it. I still haven't gone back to watch the videos of that series. For one, it was brutal. I really didn't show up against Boston like I should have. We were by far the best team in baseball that year and nobody doubted that. That was 2004. We ended up winning 106 games that season. If we would have been able to pull off a World Series, our offense would have been one of the best in a long, long time. But it was great to have that experience. I think every kid grows up playing whiffle ball in the backyard and simulating playing in a World Series. And playing against a historic franchise like the Red Sox and knowing what long struggles they've had and making something happen in the postseason, not that we wanted to be a part of that for them, but it was great competition. One of the peaks of my career was the National League Championship Series leading up to that against the Houston Astros that went to game seven. We faced Roger Clemens in game seven and a very strong offense. It was just a knock-down, drag-out, smash-mouth baseball game. It was a lot of fun. The postseason in general is an experience that I owe everybody getting to be a part of it, whether it is as a player or as a fan."
Q: Earlier in the year, you were inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. How prestigious of an honor was that for you?
A: "It was a great honor. The St. Louis Cardinals' fan base stretches pretty wide and this was an event that was done almost down in Arkansas right in the southwest corner of the state. It was nice to see the fan base and hear stories from people. I think sometimes guys separate themselves from the fan base. Sometimes you forget how much and the way you played the game and some of the teams you were on how much the memories of the fan base last. To be able to go down there and talk with some fans and recall some of the stories, the autographs that were signed and what it meant to them that is always great. No matter what hall of fame you're inducted into it leaves a mark and a legacy. My kids' grand kids may walk through there someday and see their name and my name up there. It's a pretty special thing that I don't take lightly."
Q: You will also be the keynote speaker at this year's Michigan baseball banquet. Talk about how that came about and what that means to you?
A: "I reached out to Coach Maloney and told him that I would love to be able to help out whenever I can. Chasing five kids doesn't usually leave a lot of opportunity. He gave me the date of when the event was going to be and it actually fit into our schedule. It worked out nicely that I could come by there. I've been doing a lot public speaking, even when I was playing, but I'm doing more corporate events now. There is a great message of playing at the highest level and the character qualities needed to get to the top level. And they are applicable, whether it is a young man just getting out of college and going out into the professional world or taking skills to the Minor League side, they are all the same. It's fun to use those stories. I think those stories ring a bell with baseball fans when they hear some of the inside stories of some of the things that happened on the field and off the field and then pull out some of the personalities of the game and the qualities that they have that made them special. That is basically what I am planning on doing with these boys, just sharing some of my personal experience, some of the stories of guys whose names they would know in the game of baseball, and what sets them aside. But it won't be just a story time. I want to challenge them. I want to take the opportunity that I have and the platform that I have being the keynote speaker that night to hopefully give them a challenge to help them in that next chapter of life."
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