Cardinals manager can relate to Stanton incident

St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina prepares to throw to second base as Colorado Rockies' Michael Cuddyer scores behind him on a RBI-single by Ben Paulsen during the fourth inning of a baseball game Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014, in St. Louis. (AP Photo
Scott Kane

ST. LOUIS (AP) It should come as no surprise that Mike Matheny is a leading proponent of player safety, from the big leagues all the way down to T-ball. Just like Giancarlo Stanton, the St. Louis Cardinals manager was struck in the face by a pitch and felt lucky to walk away minus only teeth and blood.

Concussions ultimately ended his playing career. The permanent indentation in his left shin is evidence he could have benefited from some extra protection at the plate as well as behind it.

Matheny has vivid recollections of staggering away and being determined not to lose consciousness, the first few seconds after his left jaw got in the way of a wayward fastball from the Pirates' Rich Loiselle in 1998 when he was with the Brewers.

He compared the blow to that of a boxer knocked off his feet by an uppercut or a punt returner getting drilled right after the catch.

''I was working real hard to stay in and I believe I was the tying run in the ninth,'' Matheny said. ''The part that got me was I was just dropping so much blood, I didn't necessarily want to pass out right on the field.

''I didn't think that'd look good.''

Matheny returned to the lineup the next day and didn't flinch in the batter's box, and ultimately elected not to wear a facemask. To this day the damage to the dental work reverberates - most of the teeth that weren't replaced on the left side of his face have required extensive repair.

''I wasn't a superstar player and I needed to grind,'' Matheny said. ''In my opinion, it was part of my role in leadership on that team, I needed to be back in there.''

The culture is less macho now, and he wouldn't be surprised if Stanton returns wearing a guard like the Braves' Jason Heyward. And that others join in, too.

''Guys make mistakes and balls sail, we've all seen that,'' Matheny said. ''It's a scary place to go. I think it's going to be individual preference.''

The defending National League champions reflect their manager's fearlessness while also serving as role models for aspiring major leaguers. They lead the league in getting hit by a pitch.

Jon Jay and Matt Holliday are at the top of the leaderboard, plunked a combined 36 times. More than half the roster is fortified by light-weight EvoShield padding that's form-fitting like a second skin and worn by hundreds of players in several sports.

It's filtered down some to college and high schools, too. Matheny, who remains connected to youth sports, believes newcomers can perhaps benefit the most, and allay parents' fears of injury, from technology that keeps the Cardinals out of the trainer's room.

''I see this as a possibility of being something that keeps kids more engaged,'' Matheny said. ''When they start worrying about being hurt, that usually influences how much they're enjoying the game or not.''

Rookie Kolten Wong began wearing an elbow protector after getting drafted in the first round in 2011.

''It's not something that gets in the way at all and it takes the majority of the blow,'' Wong said. ''You're still going to feel a 95 mph fastball but it'll take away a lot of the damage that could have been done.''

All-Star catcher Yadier Molina wears a thumb protector that helps protect an injury that sidelined him for two months, and wears additional lightweight chest and elbow pads.

During his career, Matheny was among many who improvised his protection. He rigged a guard for a hyperextended right thumb and stuffed pads into his wrist bands to save himself more significant trouble later on.

''When you get hit there, you're pretty much useless catching a ball for a few minutes,'' Matheny said. ''You lose any kind of strength to even get a glove on.''`

The Yankees' Brett Gardner remains in the do-it-yourself crowd, customizing a neoprene elbow sleeve to protect a fractured thumb from a headfirst slide in 2009.

''This works pretty good,'' Gardner said. ''I'd rather not write a big story about it, someone might try and patent something like it.''

Though Jay has been hit a major league-high 19 times, virtually all of them have been to the lower body on breaking balls inside attempting to jam him. Holliday has seemed more in danger's path, and his manager is on alert.

''No matter who it is, you've got to be careful when you start trying to make pitches up and in,'' Matheny said. ''I think not too many pitchers have the control that they can go up and in and not risk hurting somebody.''

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