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. Teams hold the rights to players until they attend their first class, so Gillick instructed Matheny to call him the morning classes began to hear the team’s final offer.
“I’m driving up (to Ann Arbor) and I’m trying not to act distracted, but a lot of us have had dreams of playing professional baseball and mine was sitting right in front of me,” Matheny says. “I’m sitting up in my dorm room in West Quad and my phone keeps ringing and they keep upping the ante and I’m thinking, ‘I’m really not that good.’ ”
Finally, the morning of Matheny’s first class arrived and so had his final decision. He put his backpack on and just before leaving his dorm room, he called the Blue Jays to inform them that he was staying at Michigan.
“I’m walking out the door and I’m thinking, ‘What am I doing walking away from my dream?’ ” Matheny recalls. “I’m not sure that I’m making the right decision, so I’ve been praying a lot, but didn’t know what exactly I was looking for in return.”
It didn’t take long to get a message from above — albeit not one he was looking for.
After taking just one step out of West Quad, a pigeon’s poop landed squarely on Matheny’s head.
“(The pigeon was) apparently the size of a turkey,” he says, laughing. “I’m completely covered, where people are walking by and laughing at me. I’m not talking a little bit, I’m talking Nickelodeon stuff. So I was thinking, ‘God, I’ve asked you to be clear before, but c’mon.’ “
Matheny had to return to his room to shower and change, providing him the opportunity to change his mind about staying in college. But something about the incident reaffirmed his decision.
And for further reassurance — because he walked into his class 20 minutes late — he met what he describes as a “hot blonde” named Kristin, who was on the field hockey team.
Mike and Kristin Matheny have now been married for 18 years and have five children.
Matheny played three seasons at Michigan and following his junior season — which he spent as the team’s captain — Matheny was drafted in the eighth round of the 1991 Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers.
But despite forgoing his senior year, he remained true to the principles that brought him to Michigan in the first place. He spent his first two off-seasons as a minor leaguer back in Ann Arbor to earn his degree — the first person in his family to attain a degree from a major university.
“I didn’t want to throw all that away, and I knew as I got older it’d be harder to come back,” Matheny says. “Just walking away, it’s having that degree and it’s having that education and the time to grow as a person.”
Matheny made his Major League debut in 1994 with the Brewers and played five seasons there. He spent a year with the Blue Jays in 1999, before signing with St. Louis, where he played five seasons.
Matheny won Gold Glove awards with the Cardinals in 2000, 2003 and 2004 and with the San Francisco Giants in 2005. In 2004, he played an integral role in the Cardinals’ run to the World Series. He spent his final two seasons with the Giants and was finally forced to retire in 2007 after incurring a series of concussions.
"On the field (Matheny) taught me how to be a professional,” pitcher Matt Morris, a teammate of Matheny for six seasons, told ESPN at the time. “Off the field, he taught me to be a man and a respectful person.”
Matheny finished with a .231 career batting average, but an astounding .994 fielding percentage. He holds the major league catching records for consecutive games (252) and chances (1,565) without committing an error.
These days, he’s back with St. Louis as its roving catching instructor. Throughout the season, he travels to the Cardinals and their minor league teams, while also acting as an advisor to the St. Louis front office staff.
Matheny returned to Michigan as the keynote speaker of the Wolverines’ recent senior banquet and told the crowd that he never shies away from showing his Michigan pride.
“Of the things that I’ve been able to accomplish in my life — and some of them were bigger than I ever thought I would — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into a conversation and stuck my chest out a little bit when somebody asked me where I went to school,” Matheny says.
“When I see their reaction, I know that I was right in the decision that I made. I truly want the message to ring clear that this is a very, very special place and it’s developing very special people.”
Matheny volunteered to give the speech as a way to give back to his alma mater, but he may have another gift for the baseball program.
His oldest son Tate — a junior at Westminster Christian in Missouri— is a highly touted center fielder who traveled to Ann Arbor for the banquet with his father. Led by Tate — who hit .505 this year with 10 homers and 54 RBI — Westminster won the Missouri state championship on Saturday.
Tate holds scholarship offers from several top-notch programs, including Baylor, Missouri and Florida State, but has called Michigan his dream school.