By Tim Reynolds/The Associated Press
MIAMI — Mike Matheny is excited for his managerial debut. At least, he thinks he is.
Turns out, the St. Louis skipper may have some trouble sorting out his feelings right now.
“Maybe I’m just not smart enough to decipher between nerves and excitement,” Matheny said.
The Cardinals know that’s not the case. Though it will almost seem like an ancillary story Wednesday night — overshadowed by the newly renamed Miami Marlins opening their new $515 million ballpark — Matheny’s time running the reigning World Series champions is finally set to begin, the next chapter of his baseball life after the former catcher appeared in 10 opening days as a player.
“Opening day, in all 30 stadiums, is going to be pretty exciting,” Matheny said. “I’m a little biased to what we’ve seen on a consistent basis in St. Louis. Regardless if the team wins the World Series or not, opening day is pretty special. So especially after the kind of finish that this team had last year, we think it could be exceptional.”
Matheny took a wide-eyed first look around Marlins Park on Tuesday — “bright and unique” was his assessment — but was otherwise all business. He held an afternoon team meeting that was short on hyperbole, the primary agenda being to announce a lineup of Rafael Furcal, Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, David Freese, Yadier Molina, Jon Jay, Daniel Descalso and Kyle Lohse, and go over the team’s signs.
His last decision before the games count for real? He tabbed himself to throw batting practice.
“I like doing that,” Matheny said. “It’s a long season.”
True, and it comes after an offseason full of change.
The lineup the Cardinals will use in Game 1 of this season has a couple glaring changes compared to the one used in Game 7 of last season’s World Series. No Chris Carpenter on the mound, sidelined by a nerve ailment that weakened his throwing shoulder. No Albert Pujols at first base, his time with the Cardinals ending when he signed a $240 million, 10-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels.
And of course, not only is the lineup different, but so is the man behind the lineup. Tony La Russa retired after the World Series, opening the door for Matheny, a 41-year-old who looks as if he could still play.
“I’m just excited, same way we talked about spring training games,” Matheny said. “I’m just excited to get going.”
Lohse gets the opening-day start because Carpenter is ailing, though Lohse perhaps had the best numbers on the Cardinals’ staff last season. He led St. Louis in wins (14) and topped the starters in both ERA (3.39) and batting average allowed (.249).
“I’m going out there for my teammates, like I always do,” Lohse said. “You do that, you try to give it your all in every game.”
The first time Matheny ever played on opening day in the major leagues, his team beat Ozzie Guillen’s club, Milwaukee topping the Chicago White Sox 12-3 on April 26, 1995.
Fast forward 17 years and Matheny’s opening-day managerial debut comes against one managed by Guillen, who’s running the Marlins for the first time.
And Matheny has picked the brains of several other managers, saying it was important for him to learn as much as he could this spring. He declined to say who he sought out for ideas — some of them, he said, only talked to him with the strict caveat that the details of their conversation must stay private — but it’s known that he and La Russa have been in fairly regular contact.
La Russa hasn’t been in the public eye much at all since retiring. Matheny hopes he’s around the Cardinals again soon, saying it would be “an honor” for La Russa to spend some time with the club.
For now, the 2012 Cardinals and Matheny will simply try to pick up where the 2011 Cardinals and La Russa left off.
“It’s time to get out here and play the game and show our fan base that we’re excited about carrying on after what happened last year,” Matheny said.