ROSEMONT, Ill. — In 1968, when John Beilein was living in upstate New York, he never would’ve predicted he’d one day be rooting for the Detroit Tigers in a World Series.
The Tigers had just broken his 10 year-old heart by knocking off Bob Gibson and his beloved St. Louis Cardinals. Beilein, who decided to become a Cardinals fan five years earlier in 1963, also had no idea that one day he’d become close friends with the St. Louis manager.
Beilein, still a devoted Cardinals fan, has struck up a friendship with St. Louis manager and former Michigan baseball player Mike Matheny. When the Cardinals visited Comerica Park this summer during interleague play, Beilein paid a visit to the ballpark to spend time with his friend, and the two remained in contact even through Matheny’s recent playoff grind, which ended in a Game 7 loss to San Francisco earlier this week.
“One of the texts I sent him after a game — they’d won a big game — and I said, ‘Now you’ve got to hurry to get home to watch the Michigan football game,’ ” Beilein said Thursday at Big Ten Media Day. “He loves Michigan, but he does a good job with the Cardinals.”
Matheny played three seasons in Ann Arbor before leaving in 1989 to pursue a professional career. In the midst of his 13-year career, he won four Gold Gloves and holds the MLB catching records for most games (252) and chances (1,565) without committing an error, but he accomplished one of his proudest feats off the field.
Matheny returned to Ann Arbor in each of his first two off-seasons as a professional and completed his final 42 credits, becoming the first person in his family to earn 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 said in 2011 after speaking at the Michigan baseball team banquet. “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.
“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.”
Beilein said that as he watched the Cardinals this year, he noticed that leadership attributed to Matheny’s Ann Arbor days remained instilled in how the first-year coach manages.
“He’s such a great representation of what a Michigan Man is,” Beilein said. “Just watch his press conferences and how he talks to the press, how he deals with his players, it’s Michigan. It’s just Michigan. He has a great calming influence on his players, and his team plays with great confidence because of it.”
Beilein, who has also gotten to know former St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa over the years, didn’t close the door on the possibility of Matheny paying a visit to the basketball team in Ann Arbor. But don’t expect anything to materialize before the Wolverines kick off their season in a week.
“I think right now he needs to rest and enjoy what a great season he just had, because it was great,” Beilein said. “(For now,) I will root for the Tigers. They are my American League team without question.
“I went in the dugout to talk with Jim Leyland when I went to see the Cardinals play, and he’s a big college basketball fan as well. I’m rooting for him and his team.”