SAN FRANCISCO -- Catchers are no ordinary men -- they're legitimate tough guys -- and to get an insight into what made Giants backstop Mike Matheny tick, let's go back nine months ago when a foul tip came off the bat like a ricocheting bullet, slamming into his mask at 100 miles per hour. Matheny, stunned and dizzy, had already taken maybe a half-dozen shots to the head during the week, but even after head trainer Stan Conte pulled him out and X-rays were taken, Matheny was already planning on flying to New York for the next series against the Mets. Fat chance. He couldn't remember what day it was.
"We're competitive -- we're wired that way," said the 13-year Major League veteran. Matheny would, however, never play again, and the four-time Gold Glove catcher reluctantly but advisedly retired from baseball Thursday because of lingering post-concussion symptoms. Yet Giants fans haven't seen the last of the man. "I'm excited about giving back to the community and my family," said Matheny from his St. Louis-area home. "Baseball's a game driven by statistics, but it's time to take the self-centered focus off myself and help people." San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean said his door is always open for Matheny to once again embrace his favorite sport as a coach or consultant for the organization, and while the catcher will, for now, enjoy life at home with his family, Matheny envisions eventually helping younger players in the intricacies of catching. "I feel a sense of responsibility to pass that on," he said. "I've worked with some of the best catchers in the game and I'd love to be involved in some degree if that need arises." Matheny only played a season and a half for San Francisco, but his qualities as a person and ballplayer had an immediate -- and lasting -- impact. In 2005, he won the Willie Mac Award, an honor voted on by players and coaches for character and inspiration, and also won his final Gold Glove in that initial season with San Francisco, sporting a record .999 fielding mark. He made one error in 862 total chances, and even that miscue came when he couldn't pick up a loose ball on a steal attempt. "Mike is one of the toughest competitors that we have ever witnessed and a true leader," said Sabean. "As a player, he will be missed not only on the field, but in the clubhouse, the scouting meetings and on the road with his teammates. On behalf of the Giants, I wish Mike and his family all the best. He'll always be a Giant." And one of baseball's most respected defensive players. Matheny is one of only three receivers in Major League history to catch at least 100 games in a single season without committing an error, when he played 138 errorless contests in 2003 for St. Louis (823 total chances), and he boasts a lifetime .994 fielding percentage. The catcher would have preferred retiring on his own terms and admitted when he signed official retirement papers it was a blow, yet he was comforted by his tenure and how players, management and fans responded positively to him. "It's been a fun ride, and I've been blessed beyond what I can imagine," he said. "It's what kids dream about." Matheny still harbored hopes of returning to action as the months went on following that last concussion against the Florida Marlins in Miami, but spells of forgetfulness, dizziness upon exertion and sometimes befuddled thinking were far too common. He was examined by specialists and a cadre of doctors but all concluded it was too dangerous to play this collision sport again. On Dec. 28, Matheny took a strenous walk -- just a walk -- and symptoms increased as his heart rate went up. "I'm still dealing with it," said Matheny. "It's a healing process and the brain takes its own time. It's not a shoulder or knee or elbow ... we're talking about the brain." The best news is Conte -- now with the Dodgers -- and new head trainer Dave Groeschner developed a program for an intellectual and physical baseline analysis of catchers, so concussion symptoms can be fully understood. Matheny was the catalyst. Nearly every Major League and Minor League catcher was contacted, and the Giants and other clubs can now more accurately diagnose catchers' health after head injuries. Despite Matheny's great defensive statistics, that might be his more important legacy.
Rich Draper is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.