FT. MYERS, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- Mike Matheny stood in the dugout wearing a stupid-looking helmet and a jersey with no name on it. It was the spring of 1992, he was 21 years old, and he had just one professional season to his name; a 64-game campaign at rookie ball.
He had been called up from minor league camp to catch bullpens for the Brewers, and had ridden the bus with the team to the Cleveland’s complex for the day’s Cactus League game.
He was a nobody, about to hit in place of Milwaukee’s biggest somebody, four-time (to that point) All-Star and future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor.
The action to that point hadn’t exactly prepared him for the moment.
During batting practice, Matheny had watched the the rote repetitions until he noticed a legendary face on the field. Bob Feller, one of the greatest pitchers to ever grace a diamond, was on hand to watch and advise the Cleveland farmhands. Imagine the moment for Matheny, an aspiring MLB catcher and fellow Midwesterner. Feller, already in Cooperstown, was feet away. Five minutes of conversation could yield a lifetime of lessons.
They talked for nearly all of batting practice.
Matheny doesn’t have any teachings filed away from that chat; no grand philosophies on pitching, no old-school tricks to apply in the new-school era.
Because there was only one topic of conversation, and it was Feller’s.
“Tractors,” the Cardinal manager said with a smile. “It was a one-sided conversation.”
Matheny was from Ohio, Feller from Iowa. But farmland was farmland, and Matheny was as close to Van Meter as Feller could get that day.
The game began and Matheny took up residence in the bullpen. The innings passed by as they do in spring, slow and steady and then somehow all at once. After some time- maybe an hour, maybe 10- the call came down: the kid would bat for Molitor, provided there wasn’t a a runner in scoring position.
So Matheny suited up. He wore a jersey with a number so high it usually belongs to wide receivers in that other American past time. It was the kind players earmarked for A ball wore; it belonged to everyone and no one at all.
At least Molitor could help him with his head gear.
“He came up to me and said, 'Take that stupid helmet off,'” Matheny recalled.
The Ignitor took his own helmet off and passed it to Matheny, giving him at least one piece of major league gear to go into battle with. The rookie headed out to the on-deck circle. The late Daryl Hamilton was at bat.
He’d eventually play 13 seasons in the majors and earn four Gold Gloves, but at that moment Matheny was a wide-eyed eighth-rounder wearing a borrowed helmet and still trying to make sense of having a Hall of Famer talk farm equipment with (at?) him for nearly an hour.
Just as the moment reached what should have been the exciting climax, Hamilton doubled, putting himself in scoring position.
“Molitor came out of the dugout, took his helmet back and I went in,” Matheny said.
He descended the steps, relieved of duty and helmet-less once again. But on his way down, he spotted the lineup card. “MOLITOR” was crossed off. Under it, written neatly, was “MATHENY.”
“I figured it might be the only time I was written into a lineup,” he said. “So I wanted it.”
He waited for his moment, taking care not to draw attention to himself as he hunted the souvenir. It went down from the wall, and was forgotten by everyone but the farmhand eyeing it purposefully. As the game ended and Matheny readied to pick up the paper and stash it away, a pitching coach sauntered by and spit.
“Just a bit thing of tobacco juice right in the middle of the lineup,” Matheny said.
No longer worth the effort, the keepsake was left behind. Matheny took only the memory of the day home with him. Tractor talk with Bob Feller, batting helmet by Paul Molitor. For a brief moment, his last name was written in the same column as major leaguers. It happened, perhaps long before he ever thought it should have. Somewhere in the Arizona desert, there could be a chaw-stained, sun-baked lineup card to prove it.