Matheny's message: 'Sports can be joyful for kids' - NBC Sports

Matheny's message: 'Sports can be joyful for kids'
Cardinals manager - who coached youth sports in St. Louis - maintains parents who berate or cajole kids during games harms overall benefits of playing sports
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Between a 13-year big-league career and his first season as the Cardinals' manager, Mike Matheny coached youth baseball -- but he insisted on doing it his way.
March 20, 2013, 9:03 am

Four years ago or so, Mike Matheny did what I suspect every single youth coach in every sport in America has wanted to do at some point in his or her life. He laid out his demands. He opened up his computer on a flight to St. Louis, and he started typing. And typing. And typing.

The first few words might tell you where he was going.

"I always said that the only team that I would coach would be a team of orphans," he wrote. "And now, here we are."

This was a few years before Matheny would become manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. And it was after he had played 13 years as a catcher in the Major Leagues. His youngest son was 10 and ready to play baseball. Friends wanted Matheny to manage the team.

"Why even play sports otherwise?" Matheny recently asked me.

After attending his children's games for a while, Matheny was so disgusted by it all, he would sit apart from everyone else, somewhere off in the distance and quietly watch his kids. "Coach youth sports?" he wondered years ago. "Are you kidding?"

And then, it hit him. Maybe he WOULD coach sports. But he needed to do it on his own terms. He started typing his demands. In time, the 2,556-word beast would become known as "The Matheny Manifesto." But he didn't write it as a manifesto. He wrote it as his non-negotiable requirement for taking the job.

Here's what he demanded:

  • "You as a parent need to be a silent, constant source of support." The word "silent" appears twice in that paragraph.
  • "The boys will not shake their head or pout or say anything to the umpire."
  • "I would like for these boys to have some responsibility for having their own water."
  • "The boys will be required to show up ready to play . shirts tucked in, hats on straight and pants not drooping to their knees."
  • "I understand that for some of you, it may not be the right fit. . Let me know as soon as possible whether or not this is a commitment that you and your son want to make."
  • "I know it is going to be very hard not to coach from the stands and yell encouraging things to your son. But I am confident this works in a negative way . I am saying that if you hand your child over to me to coach them, then let me do my job."

There is a lot more, of course, but this gets at the basic message. Matheny was saying that if they really wanted him to coach, he wouldn't entertain suggestions from parents, he did not want them coaching from the side or getting their kids water and he would expect the players to be on time, hustle and be respectful, or they would not play. If you coach youth sports, there's a pretty good chance you're applauding right now.

Then, a couple of funny things happened. One, Matheny was coaching one of his youth teams in the Dominican Republic, and he got a call from Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak, who offered him the St. Louis manager job. He obviously accepted and last year took the Cardinals to the playoffs. This year's team goes into the season as one of the best in the National League.

Two, his letter made it to the Internet. Matheny doesn't know who posted it or how it happened, but the thing went viral. "The Matheny Manifesto," it was called. People had all sorts of opinions about his letter - a few where negative ("Who do you think you are?") but most were overwhelmingly positive. Coaches talked about how they wanted to institute this philosophy into their own coaching. Parents talked about how they wanted the children to learn more and have more fun playing sports.

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"I believe things happen for a reason," Matheny told me this week. No, he never intended for the letter to go public, and he never saw himself as a leader for a new direction in youth sports. But he has seen the impact the letter has on people. And he has seen that there are others, many others, who want youth sports to be about something more than winning and parents who want to live vicariously through their children's successes.

"You know, 99 percent of the kids playing baseball won't play high school ball," Matheny said. "That's a statistic that's floating around for anyone to see. Of those kids who do play high school ball, 99 percent won't play in college. Of those playing in college, more than 99 percent won't play pro ball. This happens at every level.

"That's why it can't be about being in a big-league clubhouse. Baseball should be about what it can teach about discipline and unselfishness and teamwork. I always said that between life and baseball, it's obvious that life is a lot more important."

Matheny is making this a cause. He has a website, and there you can see the letter he wrote, and you can read the blog he's writing. He promised to put some videos on there - he's got one coming from Jim Leyland and another from Joe Girardi - and he said he intends to keep it going all year.

"I'll put some baseball in there to keep the young players engaged," he said. "And I'll keep talking about ideas to make sports about the kids."

He stopped and looked at me. "There is story after story of kids just quitting sports because it stopped being fun. I'll bet you've seen some of that."

She was not the only one yelling, of course. But she was the loudest. The mother was so clearly doing it out of love . and at the same time, maybe, you could see the girl withering. I don't know what's right. Maybe that girl will become tougher because of her mother's intensity. Maybe she will push herself and become a star basketball player. Then again maybe she will quit the game because it just wasn't much fun. I don't claim to know the answer. I only know that after every practice my own daughter - probably like your son or daughter - looks up at me and asks, "How did I do?"

"People want to do what's best for their kids," Matheny said. "I know that. Their hearts are in the right place. But I think, without intending to, they add pressure, and they don't let them just be kids.

"Some people will say I'm crazy. They will say I'm full of it. I know that. I'm not saying my way is the right way for everybody. It's not. But I am saying that a lot of people see the same things I'm seeing. I'm saying there is another way. There is a way where sports can be used to develop character. There is a way where sports can be joyful for kids. Isn't that what we all want?"

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JPosnanski. Click here to subscribe to Joe's stories.

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