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The Matheny Manifesto: A Young Manager's Old-School Views on Success in Sports and Life
The Matheny Manifesto: A Young Manager's Old-School Views on Success in Sports and Life
Jerry B. Jenkins; Mike Matheny
Crown Archetype, 2015
224 pp., 23.0

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Jason Byassee

The Matheny Manifesto

Baseball, life, and faith.

The St. Louis Cardinals may have lost to the Chicago Cubs in the playoffs, but they don't have anything to be ashamed of. They won 100 games in the regular season, continuing their run as a perennial contender. And part of the credit for this current version of the Cardinal dynasty must go to their manager, Mike Matheny.

After a tense interview for one of the most important baseball managing jobs in the world, Matheny reflected on his anxiety this way:

The fact was, I wanted the job. I was excited about the possibilities. I closed with "I'm not guaranteeing this is what's going to happen to our boys, but I want you to see that this system works."

The interview was not for manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. It was to coach a little league team of 10-year- olds. Matheny must interview well. He not only got the little league gig, he got the big league one too, taking over a defending World Series champion from a retiring Hall of Fame manager with no managing experience himself (other than with the kids). Since then he has returned the Cards to the playoffs for four straight years.

Before agreeing to coach a bunch of 4th graders, Matheny read the riot act to the kids' parents. "I've always said I would coach only a team of orphans." The problem with youth sports isn't the youth, he said. It's the parents. Heckuva thing to say in the face of said parents. They were to attend games and not stand out in any way. They could help only by playing catch and hitting grounders with their kids between practices and games. They were never to say a word to the umpire. And no lobbying coaches on behalf of their child. Any infraction of said rules would result in little Johnny being summarily dismissed from the team.

The riot act was leaked online, gained popularity, and was dubbed (by an alliterator other than Matheny) as "The Matheny Manifesto." In this book of the same title, he teams with Jerry Jenkins of Left Behind fame to take his show on the road. His rules for his little league players don't just work with the Cardinals. They can work everywhere: "I also want to examine how these values apply to life beyond baseball, beyond sports, and can plant a seed of hope in the next generation." A little grandiose perhaps. But who would've thought a little league manager could take over the Cards—and continue to win?

The result is a beautifully readable and morally meaty sports book. Matheny and Jenkins tell stories well from Matheny's own playing career. He racked up Gold Glove awards as baseball's best defensive catcher—the position that births future managers. He broke Major League records for catching consecutive games without an error (252—more than 2000 innings!) and 1565 straight defensive chances. His most memorable highlight was taking a fastball off the face … and not falling down. He just stood there, hand on hip, more stoic than anything. Current players marvel at his grit (as will anyone who hunts down that clip on YouTube). Catchers are famously zealous about their toughness. So this is also a mark of courage: Matheny argues we shouldn't take toughness so far. Baseball's move, in concert with football, to be more diligent about guarding against concussions is a welcome one. Matheny retired with post-concussion syndrome which caused him to lose his balance, his concentration, even his sense of direction around his neighborhood. It may not look as manly for a catcher to sweep tag a slide at the plate, but it can lengthen lives, so Matheny is for it. Looking at that clip of him spitting blood and teeth, no one can accuse him of meekness.

Unless it is for his Christian faith, or so he fears. He worries about Christians being perceived as wet noodles, more Ned Flanders than Mike Matheny. He worries too much, I think. The parts of faith he explores with any texture have more to do with the particular history of American evangelicalism than with the imperatives of the Bible. For example, he was thrown out of a frat party at the University of Michigan for refusing to do shots. Courageous, but not exactly canonical. He's tempted to punctuate his protests to umpires with the occasional F-bomb (aware that its rarity from his mouth would accentuate its effectiveness!). To do so would "jeopardize everything I stand for." Here Christianity is reduced to not drinking and not cussing. To Matheny's credit, he includes not not evangelizing. A preacher close to one of his teams accused him of "turtling up and hiding" his faith. So he tries to be more forthright bearing witness to it. I just wish he'd talk a bit more about Jesus rather than his own experience not doing things. It's not exactly rare anymore, generations into the life of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and many similar organizations, to find an athlete memoirist standing up for faith.

The better parts of the book have to do with manners. And these are really, really good. Matheny had a faceful of youth sports done rudely with one of his children in a hockey league. Other parents yelled at their kids, at the refs, at one another—Matheny personally broke up a fight in a parking lot before an inebriated dad asked for his autograph. This just in: children don't want this. Kids are already under enormous self-imposed pressure to perform. The last thing they need is detailed public instruction screamed by the people they love most in the world. Why do we marvel when they quit?

As a youth sports manager, Matheny's job was to instill love and passion for the game. His players and their parents would conduct themselves with class. He would teach baseball the right way—played with courtesy toward opponents, toward one another, toward the umps (who, he promised, would perform miserably), and, most important, toward the game. Matheny teaches baseball as a craft. His players would honor that craft. They may also win. But that was ancillary. It seemed to work. His organization, the Missouri Warriors, has mushroomed into more teams who have indeed had a lot of ancillary. And there was that call from the Cards.

Matheny is on to something. We have screwed up parenting. He suggests that as youth sports have grown (and parents have made this their primary social outlet), with kids traveling all over the country in fancy uniforms, and managers imitating Billy Martin—kicking dirt on umpires little older or more competent than the players—and quoting Vince Lombardi that "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," sports have suffered. So have the souls of the little ones playing them. A youth sports manager's greatest challenge, Matheny believes, is to mold the character of the kids. They should be decent human beings above all—hopefully for the rest of their lives. So should their parents. Flannery O'Connor famously described Christian faith as a matter of "mystery and manners," of God's wild intrusion into human affairs and our rigorous and detailed reordering of our life by the power of the Holy Spirit. I hear echoes of this liturgical (not a word Matheny uses!) vision of things throughout this book. Just as a second baseman has to learn the intricate and demanding steps of turning a double play by mental preparedness and rote repetition on the way to being able to improvise successfully and beautifully, so too do Christians have to concentrate, practice, and honor the craft of discipleship. Aristotle would approve; so would Thomas Aquinas and Stanley Hauerwas.

Matheny distills his manifesto into bullet points. Key one: leadership. The coach is right even when he's wrong. Kids hear their parents disrespecting authority in their coaches, teachers, and I would add pastors, and they should cut it out, especially when they're "sure" they're right and the coach is wrong. And leaders should be big enough to apologize when they err. Key two: confidence. A manager at every level should let the catcher call the pitcher's pitches and not take over. Do weekend warrior dads really think they can see (in every sense) as well as the eyes behind the plate? Teaching the game the right way means giving it over to the players to learn themselves. Key three: teamwork. He tells stories here of aging baseball stars who go out of their way to treat rookies and fans and umpires with kindness, when clearly they don't have to. Key four: faith, and here Matheny does show it's harder to get thrown out of a game without cussing (a fellow coach jokes that he can only get thrown out for loitering!). Key five: class, and his gem of an example is umpires and catchers going out of their way to give each other time to recover when hit by a pitch. Key six: character. His players will not respond in kind when disrespected by opponents. Key seven: toughness. We rarely learn things the easy way. Sure it's cool for a big leaguer to play hurt, but not for a child to. And key eight: humility, which he shows throughout by honoring the granular texture of the game. Baseball has been a "pacesetter" for his life, he says in a nice turn of phrase, and he honors it here.

My only caution is a certain nostalgia about the good ole days, perhaps attributable to his co-writer, but it seems to run deep, both in the writer and in his sport. Sure enough, as Matheny quotes Nolan Ryan, kids today seem only to play with uniforms on, and kids used to play anything involving a ball because … it was fun. Video games are the choice du jour, not the sandlot. Christians are often tempted to look back nostalgically, but we shouldn't do it. In a truly moving vignette, Matheny recalls watching the film 42 with an older black man in the theater weeping and delighting like he's in church. As even a superficial grasp of history shows, we human beings have only ever been sinners. We are now too. The Christian claiming to be counter-cultural while releasing a bestseller about managing one of baseball's greatest franchise seems … odd. That way lies the cultural resentment of the old moral majority, winning presidential elections while claiming to be persecuted, and it's a tired trope.

Matheny resists at points. He doesn't want to claim to have all the answers—that's the very arrogance he suggests we'd all do better without. And there are few better laboratories for how to be human beings, and a society, than the youth sports field. I'd love my kid to play for a Matheny. And I'd love to not be the parent he worries about.

My deep envy in reading the book as a pastor is for some of the power Matheny had as a little league coach. He could kick kids off the team. As a player he could tell a pitcher who publically showed him up that he would fight him right there on the field if he did it again. This insistence on manners is crucial to any life well lived. How come as a pastor I couldn't exercise it? When people made up lies about me or listened to gossip rather than shut it down, I couldn't kick them out of the church. And I shouldn't—churches that enthuse about excommunication at the whim of perceived pastoral disrespect are often wretched places. But I wonder if we can insist on anything in human behavior without consequences. And I was surprised to find myself jealous of the authority of a little league coach.

Jason Byassee teaches homiletics at the Vancouver School of Theology in British Columbia.

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