By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Writer
Published June 5, 2011
Long before former catcher Mike Matheny was racking up Gold Gloves while earning the nickname, “The Toughest Man Alive,” he donned the maize and blue and starred at Michigan.
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Matheny — who retired from Major League Baseball in 2007 after 13 seasons, most notably with the St. Louis Cardinals — was a Wolverine from 1989-1992. After leaving Michigan, Matheny went on to become one of the game’s best defensive catchers, winning four Gold Gloves. But the former Wolverine almost took a completely different route — one that nearly skipped over Ann Arbor.
Matheny grew up in Reynoldsburg, Ohio — a suburb just minutes outside out of Columbus — as an Ohio State fan. But with little recruiting attention from the hometown Buckeyes, he turned his attention north to Michigan, where the catcher held a scholarship offer from then-coach Bud Middaugh.
Middaugh took a chance on Matheny, who was scrawny with below-average height, because Matheny’s dad was significantly bigger, suggesting that Mike had yet to finish his growth spurt.
Academics have always been important to Matheny and no school offered him a better chance to play baseball while studying at a top-notch university. He wasted little time in committing to the Wolverines during his 1988 senior year.
But while the Buckeyes paid little attention to Matheny, some pro scouts had taken notice.
“I couldn’t hit my way out of a wet bag, but I could catch and throw a little bit,” Matheny says. “I had all these guys following me when I was in high school and saying, ‘Hey, we may pick you. We know you’re a pretty good student (who may go to college), so we don’t know if we’re going to waste a pick.’
“(They were just) playing that whole tiptoe dance.”
In early June, scouts instructed Matheny to stay close to his phone during the three-day 1988 MLB Draft. There was no television or internet coverage of the draft at the time, so prospects would rely on a call from a team official to inform the player they’d been drafted.
“I sat for three days next to a corded phone and no call came,” Matheny recalls. “Finally, two days later, this guy generously called me and said, ‘Oh by the way, we drafted you.’ I said, ‘Well thanks for letting me know now,’ after I’d been glued to the sofa for three days.”
The team on the other line was the Toronto Blue Jays, who took Matheny in the 31st round — a detail they didn’t want him knowing.
“He refused to tell me what round it was, so I figured out that it wasn’t very high,” Matheny says. “Even when I asked him, he wouldn’t tell me, but he just kept telling me that, ‘You have the opportunity to sign if you want to.’ He was really standoffish, so I knew he wasn’t too serious about me coming.”
Matheny reaffirmed his commitment to Michigan and turned his attention to the Junior Olympic team. But it wasn’t long before the Blue Jays began paying serious attention to their draftee.
Playing against some of the best amateur talent from around the country and world, Matheny held his own. Meanwhile, he finally hit his growth spurt, reaching 6-foot-2.
Shortly before his freshman orientation, Toronto’s offer became more serious. But while the proposed contract grew more lucrative, one thing remained the same.
“They still wouldn’t tell me what round I was drafted in, so I’m going with, ‘I think I was the last pick in the draft,’ ” he says.
A decision turned messy
Matheny had packed his bags and was ready to move up to Ann Arbor. But while just two days stood before his departure, something else loomed even larger: a visit from the Blue Jays general manager, Pat Gillick.
“He shows up at my front door in snake-skinned cowboy boots and starts to negotiate a contract with me,” Matheny says. “To be honest, when he first called me and told me he was a GM, I thought the manager was the guy who went and got the water and the guy who kept everything was in order.
“I didn’t realize the general manager was the guy who made the big decisions.”
Before Gillick left, he made two things clear.
The first was that Toronto was so interested that the coming offers would give Matheny at least second-round money — not bad for a 31st round pick.
The second was that the Blue Jays were not prepared to give up.