Nov 14, 2011; St. Louis, MO, USA; Mike Matheny addresses the media after being introduced as the new manager of the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

Scott Rovak

Stepping onto the field at Busch Stadium for Opening Day in 2000 and witnessing firsthand what ‘baseball heaven’ had to offer is a moment that Mike Matheny will never forget. Signed to the Cardinals during the previous off-season, the then-catcher embraced the chance to join a winning team in his adopted hometown. “Even though I wasn’t born in St. Louis, this was home to me—my wife is from here and my kids were born here, so that just made that first season extremely special,” he says.

Twelve years later, Matheny will have another special Opening Day, when he is introduced to 40,000-plus adoring red-clad fans on April 13 as the Cardinals’ new manager. It is a challenge he is looking forward to, and one that both life and baseball have prepared him for. “I just want to lead, encourage and teach,” the 41-year-old explains. “Investing in people is at the core of who I am, so to combine that with what I know best, which is baseball, just makes sense.”

Growing up in Ohio, Matheny’s first foray into baseball was just being a kid. “I’m very grateful for the fact that my parents didn’t just let us sit around. We didn’t have cable, and there were no video games, so we were outside, playing sports.”

Drafted in 1991 out of University of Michigan, Matheny spent time with the Milwaukee Brewers and Toronto Blue Jays before joining the Cardinals. “I found the right fit in St. Louis. Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan gave me an opportunity— they saw I had a passion to help the team and to win.”

Matheny played with the Cardinals through 2004 before joining the San Francisco Giants, and retiring in 2007 after a 13-year career with four Gold Gloves. He now hopes the achievements he attained as a player will help him as manager. “There’s no question that having a career as a player gives you some credibility as a coach. I think guys realize you’ve been there, seen a lot of different things, and had success at some level, and that does help with the transition.”

Coaching was always something that interested Matheny, but he was hesitant in years past with the demands it would place on a family man raising five children with his wife, Kristin. “When the kids were a little bit younger, it was tough to rationalize, but the dynamics of our family are changing with a couple of them getting ready for college. So the timing is actually perfect,” he says.

As the youngest manager in Major League Baseball replacing the third winningest manager in history, Matheny’s new job comes with plenty of scrutiny, which he will face head-on. “I believe life’s about relationships, and I’m excited about helping these guys within the walls of the clubhouse, to achieve their dreams and challenge them to push even further.”

The new manager also looks forward to helping the team defend its championship. “Hopefully we can repeat what they were able to do last year.”

Accepting the high-profile position may come with a lot of expectations, but Matheny also sees it as a chance to make a difference in the community. Through an annual golf tournament, his 9-year-old Catch 22 Foundation has funded handicapped-accessible baseball fields in Chesterfield and Fairview Heights, as well as a future field at Ranken Jordan. In addition, Matheny has begun speaking engagements through his Catch 22 Promotions to focus on another passion of his: helping to change the destructive atmosphere of youth sports. “There’s such a terrible thing going on right now where kids are giving up sports because there’s so much expectation and pressure on them. I’m challenging parents and coaches to change their mindsets and goals.”

So while Cardinal Nation will be cheering on his team this year, Matheny hopes his efforts will have a far greater impact than just another winning season. “Sports, like baseball, are great opportunities to impact kids. We should use the great game of baseball in a positive way.”