The Giants made Mike Matheny a financial offer he couldn’t refuse.
Even though Matheny had said he wanted to remain with the Cardinals, who did present the catcher with an opportunity to stay, he accepted a free-agent deal from San Francisco in December 2004.
Today, in his first year as Cardinals manager, Matheny is opposing the Giants in the National League Championship Series.
Matheny was the Cardinals’ everyday catcher from 2000 through 2004. He won the Gold Glove Award three times as a Cardinal and played a major-league record 252 consecutive errorless games over a period from 2003-04. The Cardinals qualified for the postseason in four of the five years Matheny was their catcher.
Knowing Matheny’s three-year $8 million contract would end after the 2004 season, making him eligible for free agency, the Cardinals approached the catcher during spring training of 2004 and offered him a one-year $2 million extension through 2005. Matheny rejected it, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Yadier Molina was a Cardinals rookie in 2004. Management wanted Matheny to mentor Molina through the 2005 season. Matheny would turn 36 in 2006 and the Cardinals planned for Molina to be the everyday catcher by then.
Matheny had other ideas. He played well in 2004. He contributed 50 RBI (his single-season best as a Cardinal) and made one error in 122 games, helping St. Louis win its first NL pennant in 17 years.
In December 2004, Matheny told Joe Strauss of the Post-Dispatch, “I don’t think I’ve made any secret that I’d prefer to remain with the Cardinals. But there has to be interest on their part as well.”
A few days later, the Cardinals offered Matheny a two-year contract worth about $4 million, the Post-Dispatch reported. The Dodgers, Phillies and Pirates also showed interest in signing Matheny. But it was the Giants who lured him.
On Dec. 15, 2004, Matheny accepted the Giants’ three-year $10 million deal. According to the Post-Dispatch, the pact included a $3 million signing bonus to be paid in annual installments of $500,000, $1 million and $1.5 million over three years. Matheny would be paid a base salary of $1 million in 2005, $2.25 million in 2006 and $2.25 million in 2007. In addition, the Giants held a $4 million option for 2008 that could be bought out for $2 million.
“As soon as the Giants hit the scene, it really opened the eyes of my wife and myself,” Matheny said at a press conference. “We realized this could be a very special opportunity.”
Still, Matheny wasn’t ready to completely cut his ties to the Cardinals. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say the Cardinals were on my mind,” he said.
On July 8, 2005, the Cardinals faced the Giants for the first time since Matheny departed. The game was in San Francisco. During batting practice, Matheny embraced several of his former teammates, the Post-Dispatch reported. At home plate before the game, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, pitching coach Dave Duncan, players and support staff gathered to present Matheny with his 2004 Gold Glove Award. Wrote Joe Strauss: Matheny tipped his cap to the visitors as he returned to the Giants’ third-base dugout.
Matheny had two hits in the game (a double off Mark Mulder and a single off Jason Isringhausen) and nailed David Eckstein attempting to swipe second. The Cardinals won, 3-1. Boxscore
“Those are some of the best friends I’ve ever had in the game,” Matheny said of the Cardinals. “… You don’t come across that all the time in this game. There are tight bonds. It comes with the winning, but it also goes beyond baseball. There are families involved. I see my son over there with them. The guys are excited to see him. It’s a pretty neat thing. It doesn’t happen everywhere that you have those kinds of relationships. They are very, very special to me.”
A month later, Aug. 19, 2005, Matheny played his first game at St. Louis as a Giant. The Cardinals presented him with an NL championship ring before the game. Matheny told Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch it was “amazing” how his ex-teammates came over to congratulate him.
When Matheny batted for the first time, the crowd of 46,200 gave a prolonged ovation. Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter stepped off the mound to allow the applause to continue.
“I want to thank the fans for doing that,” Matheny said.
The Cardinals won, 5-4. Matheny went hitless in three at-bats against Carpenter and drew an intentional walk from reliever Julian Tavarez. Boxscore
Matheny enjoyed a stellar first season with the Giants. He produced 13 home runs and 59 RBI, both career highs. He also won another Gold Glove Award while leading NL catchers in assists (77) and runners caught attempting to steal (39). He posted a .999 fielding percentage (one error in 132 games caught).
In late May 2006, Matheny was struck by several foul balls during a three-game series against the Marlins in Florida. On May 31, in the series finale at Dolphin Stadium, Matheny was removed from the game in the third inning after getting conked by a foul tip. He was diagnosed with a concussion and never played in another game.