JUPITER, Fla. -- Mike Matheny never was a cover boy, never desired to be, either. Humility was too much a part of his upbringing, grittiness was too ingrained in the way he played to seek the spotlight.
But inside the pages of this particular edition of Sports Illustrated -- one dated Aug. 8, 2005 -- Matheny saw a calling confirmed through simple polling results.
It was a fairly minor element of the magazine's content that week and certainly not noteworthy enough to be teased on the cover, which instead featured Green Bay running back Ahman Green. This survey was quite straightforward, one in which 450 baseball players were asked to identify which current Major Leaguer would make the best manager.
The only player to receive more than 18 of the available 450 votes was a then 34-year-old catcher with the Giants. To be fair, the results weren't even close. Ten percent of the respondents had come up with the same name, that of Mike Matheny.
As impressive as the percentage, though, was the company. Others had answered the same question with such names as Brad Ausmus, Jason Varitek, Omar Vizquel and Greg Maddux. They were all fellow competitors for whom Matheny had tremendous respect.
"I remember thinking, 'Wow, that's pretty good company for your peers to think you belong there,'" said Matheny, who took the first step toward validating the hypothesis when he accepted an offer to become the Cardinals' manager last November.
"That really jumped out to me. We're all terrible evaluators of ourselves -- either too high or too low," he said. "I think I've always tended to go on the 'too low' side. To hear that sort of endorsement from guys inside the game was pretty interesting."
And yet the endorsements had begun long before Sports Illustrated ever got involved.
As for those who may have questioned the Cardinals' decision to tap Matheny, whose only previous managerial experience came on a Little League field, as the franchise's successor to Tony La Russa: Be assured that this was hardly a left-field hire. The suggestion that he was headed toward a future as a big league manager surfaced all the way back in college.
Bill Freehan, head baseball coach at the University of Michigan, would spit out phrases that Matheny never undervalued. Such phrases as 'When you're catching professionally' and 'When you go into managing, you're going to need this.' Those were loaded dreams for a teenager.
"It was very interesting that he saw that," Matheny said. "It wasn't just some random guy. It was a guy with great credibility."
More specifically, it was someone who could truly relate to the young college catcher. Freehan, too, had once donned UM catching gear. He then enjoyed a 15-year Major League career.
Others inadvertently pushed Matheny down a path toward coaching. Brought up in the Brewers organization, Matheny gathered particularly insightful perspective while working with special instructor Del Crandall and then-Brewers manager Phil Garner. Once with the Cardinals, time with George Kissell and Dave Ricketts formed him, too.
Impressionable and intrigued, Matheny asked questions of them all. At the very least, he wanted to teach his children the right way to play the game, and he wasn't narrow-minded enough to assume he already knew the answers. And in the discovery process, he found a gift.
"I found out that I had a way of communicating with kids, and then found out that that really is the same thing when you get to the professional level," he recalled. "You have to dive in and get your hands dirty. You have to speak truth to people. You give your heart and soul to people to try and make them better. I realized that there is a lot of joy that can come from this coaching side that has less to do with you and a whole lot to do with them. That's a whole lot of what I'm about, anyway."
As Matheny's mind molded, La Russa stepped in to further form his future. Though Matheny never asked for the guidance, La Russa was intentional in giving it.
Perhaps knowing that he had an opportunity to groom his successor, La Russa spent the past four years talking shop with Matheny. After workouts and at dinners, La Russa would explain, in detail, all the whys behind his actions. It was insight into La Russa's mind and method.
"The cool part about it was that he saw something in me," Matheny said. "He initiated it. And the whole time, I'm literally taking notes, writing down as much as I could remember when I got home."
And then there was one particularly memorable Spring Training dinner, a dinner in which Matheny found himself at a table with some of sports' great minds. Surrounding Matheny were former NBA player John Havlicek, NFL head coach Bill Belichick, former Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst and La Russa.
La Russa, who already had 32 years of Major League managing experience on his resume, led the night's conversation in questions: What do you think about this? What about that? Why would you do this?
"I'm sitting there thinking, 'Wow, this is incredible," Matheny said. "What would people pay to sit there or be a fly on the wall? But that's what I was able to do."
Matheny said few words, preferring instead to serve as a sponge.
"He got a lot of exposure to some smart people," general manager John Mozeliak said. "Mike is a bright guy and one who doesn't let opportunities slip by. Ever since I knew him in his playing days, I always knew him as someone who would potentially evolve into some sort of leadership role in baseball. He gravitated to a uniform position."
Matheny's route back into a Major League dugout was definitely unconventional. He stayed around the Cardinals organization after retiring in 2006 and most recently served as a special assistant in player development. The position -- not to mention the one he assumed as a youth coach for his children's baseball teams -- placed him in environments in which he could learn, grow and prepare.
That preparation now takes on new forms, most notably daily hours-long meetings with staff members. There he proposes some ideas, and listens to at least as many from others. He even phoned White Sox manager Robin Ventura during the offseason so the two could discuss their rare bond of being first-year managers with no prior Minor League coaching experience.
It's all a part of Matheny's intent to leave no resource untapped. Indeed, he is still grounded enough to know that there is much left to accomplish before he finds himself on any magazine cover.
"The only way I was able to hang on as a player was to overdo and be overly conscientious about everything I did," he said. "I also knew what kind of attributes go into a coach -- someone who constantly wants to try and make people better. I knew I had that. That was me."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.