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Well-traveled Stairs enjoying latest trip

Well-traveled Stairs enjoying latest trip

SAN DIEGO -- After 18 seasons in the Major Leagues, many of them played on one-year contracts and nearly as many anxious winters wondering where he would play next, Matt Stairs has found solace and considerable irony in knowing he will be the one who decides when his career is over.

Not someone else.

"The hardest thing for a ballplayer is to walk away from baseball ... especially when you still believe you can play," Stairs said this week. "The way things have gone this season, it's been a blast. I think that I can keep playing.

"And, for me, this is a lot better than coaching or just being home and watching games on television."

That's not just some witty analogy offered by Stairs, who offers a big swing off the bench for the Padres and a sardonic sense of humor that has won over teammates in his first season with the team.

Stairs actually flirted with retirement last winter, returning to his home in Bangor, Maine, after his 17th Major League season. He threw himself into it, even, playing on two hockey teams, coaching another and also lending his baseball skills to the University of Maine as a hitting coach.

When the phone finally rang in January, it was the Padres calling with an offer of a Minor League contract. Stairs, who has not only tasted what retirement could and would be like, understandably didn't jump at it right away.

HAVE BAT,
WILL TRAVEL
Matt Stairs has played with a Major League-record-tying 12 teams in his 18-year career. Here's a look at Stairs' nomadic big league life.
Years Team
1992-93 Expos
1995 Red Sox
1996-2000 A's
2001 Cubs
2002 Brewers
2003 Pirates
2004-06 Royals
2006 Rangers
2006 Tigers
2007-08 Blue Jays
2008-09 Phillies
2010 Padres

"He said that unless something wacky happens that he was going to coach," said Maine head coach Steve Trimper. "Then when the Padres called his agent, he asked me what I thought. I told him he had to go do it. I told him, 'There's a spot for you here when you want to shut it down.'"

Stairs, 42, isn't there yet, and he admitted this week that he wants to play one more season, possibly two. Stairs said he's been energized by the Padres' improbable run toward the postseason and, obviously, buoyed, by the fact that he can still swing it -- and swing it well -- after all these years.

"The way the year has gone, the way my body feels, the way I've swung the bat, I'll play one more year if I can find a team that's interested, maybe even two more years," Stairs said. "I'm really enjoying this."

Stairs has ably filled the role the Padres wanted, a pinch-hitter with late-inning thunder in his bat. He has 12 hits as a pinch-hitter, including four home runs, in a role manager Bud Black describes as the toughest in baseball.

"I didn't know Matt before, but I could tell during Spring Training that he was vocal, and a guy who knew how to keep everything in perspective," Black said. "He was observant of what's going on around him. He knows baseball and baseball players."

Retirement? That can surely wait. After all, just look at what Stairs would have missed had he decided to call it quits after the 2009 season.

First, by simply making the Padres roster coming out of Spring Training, Stairs became the first position player in the modern era to play for 12 teams. Stairs tied pitchers Mike Morgan and Ron Villone as the only Major Leaguers to play for 12 teams.

Then, on Aug. 23 in Milwaukee, Stairs set a Major League record when he hit his 23rd career pinch-hit home run.

Stairs, who isn't big on talking about himself, dressed quickly after the game, opting not to stick around to speak with reporters about the record. The next day, when Stairs was asked about his place in history, he joked that he was sending the ball to the Canadian Hall of Fame.

Stairs, a native of New Brunswick, Canada, might have been serious. He might have been joking, too. Sometimes, you can't be sure with him, as his teammates will tell you.

Stairs' value to the Padres, who head into their series against the Reds a half-game out of first place in the National League West, extends beyond his big swing. It has reached the clubhouse and those players inside it.

This isn't by accident.

"I had a chance to play with him in Toronto, so I knew what we were getting," Eckstein said. "It's important to have a guy who has been around and has seen everything. He's able to make sure these guys' minds are in the right place when they show up.

"He brings veteran leadership to this club. He has this way of making everyone smile. That kind of takes the edge off, especially in this game, where there's so much pressure."

This is the way Stairs was shown by veterans when he was first breaking into the Major Leagues. He broke into the big leagues in 1992 with Montreal, but it wasn't until the 1995 season in Boston when he felt like he really belonged.

That year, the Red Sox advanced to the postseason, losing to the Indians in the American League Division Series in three games. On a team with Willie McGee, Mike Greenwell and Mike Macfarlane, he learned a lot from watching the veterans prepare.

"This is almost same scenario when I was with Boston. We were in the playoffs against the Indians and Mike Macfarlane took me under his wing and told me things -- like don't change from the regular season to the playoffs," Stairs said.

"You still take the same approach. I learned to stay on that tightrope through the high and the lows."

As for his nomadic experience, bouncing around from team to team, Stairs looks at it as the highest compliment. He's certainly not a lifer like Cal Ripken or Tony Gwynn, those players who spent their entire careers with one organization.

He doesn't mind how this has all panned out. He's got a World Series ring, one he earned with the Phillies. He's got more friends than he can count and has had far more "good teammates than bad ones."

When it's time to go, he'll know. And it will be his call.

"To me, that I've played with 12 different teams means I've had 12 good years, because they've signed you to a contract and when you do well, they let you go because you're too expensive."

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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