By Julian Linden
BOSTON (Reuters) - As a former catcher, Mike Matheny knows that Major League Baseball, like life, throws up the odd curveball.
It is a lesson he has learnt the hard way and one that he applies to his new role as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Matheny played 13 years in the majors. He won four Gold Gloves and backstopped the Cardinals to the 2004 World Series, but was forced to retire because of repeated concussions.
"I know from just speaking personally, there was so many things that I had to think about as a catcher that I know helped prepare me for some of the responsibilities that I have as a manager," Matheny said.
Rubbed out of the game he loved, Matheny initially turned to business, delving into real estate. He invested his life savings and millions more that he borrowed from a bank, but lost the lot when the property bubble first.
Forced to repay his debts, he returned to baseball, initially as an assistant with the Cardinals. When Tony La Russa retired in 2011 after leading St. Louis to their 11th Fall Classic, Matheny got the skipper's job.
Although he inherited a championship team, the pressure on him to continue that success was enormous. While some first-time managers may have been overawed by the expectations, Matheny excelled.
In his first season, he took the Cardinals to within one win of the World Series. Now, in his second year, he has a National League championship under his belt and is engaged in the World Series with the Boston Red Sox.
"As far as walking into a team that had just won the World Series, I don't know if you could ask for a better situation," he said.
"You have a group of guys, one, who are talented, obviously, but experienced as well and you're able to walk in and put a lot of pressure on them to help pick up the slack.
"I didn't come in expecting to ever replace a Hall of Fame‑caliber manager like Tony La Russa. I came in to do what I could do and let these guys know that we're going to do a lot of learning along the way.
"I need you guys to step up, just like I need the staff to step up. And both the guys and the staff were able to do so to address the problems as they came."
At 43, Matheny is the youngest manger in MLB, and is in charge of a young team, with 10 rookies on the Cardinals roster for the World Series. The role of mentor is one he takes seriously.
"We take a lot of pride in trying to do things right, and with that comes a high responsibility for living up to that," he said.
"In this position as manager, there's just going to be issues that come up every single day and part of that is what I enjoy doing, it's going through life with these guys.
"Because these guys are men, not machines, and life hits them. And you continue to try and push through and be able to be productive when you get to the field every day."
Matheny's approach has struck a chord with his players and the Cardinals organization, a franchise that has always preferred to develop talent rather than shop around for it.
"In my opinion, (Matheny) is one of the most professional men I've ever met," said St. Louis pitcher Adam Wainwright.
"(He's) the perfect torchbearer, a great leader, a great motivator of men, and a guy who's learned from the best, in my opinion in Tony La Russa and (former Cardinals player and manager) Red Schoendienst over the years.
"He's been around, he's been around other winning organizations in San Francisco and other places like that. So he's got a great resume. But he also is a great man to go along with it."
(Reporting by Julian Linden; Editing by Frank Pingue)
(This story was refiled to correct the spelling of manager in the headline)