Immediately after signing the deal with the Angels, Matthews bought a house in Newport Beach that has a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean from the backyard. A good place for Gavin to play, his mother to convalesce and his grandparents to relax, he thought."I think in the end my family just won out," said Matthews, reflecting on why he chose the Angels. "I thought about my grandparents, who are 89 and 86, watching them get old, along with watching my son grow up. All these things I've missed out on. I just really wanted to put myself closer to them geographically." A .313 average with 19 homers, 79 runs batted in and 102 runs scored in 147 games for the Rangers put him in position to make that move. And a market that spiraled during free agency gave him a chance for financial security. Matthews scoffs at the notion that the big contract will create big pressure. "I'm dealing with things that are real-life issues," Matthews said. "When I get to go out and play a baseball game it is a welcome relief for me. A break for 3 1/2 hours when I don't have to deal with anything else. I get to go out and play baseball. It's such a relief and so gratifying. It's my escape. There's no pressure on me playing baseball." He has been through the lows, but he was never lower than in the spring of 2002, he recalled. "That spring was my lowest point, when I thought, 'Wow, maybe [baseball] is not in the cards,' " he said. Matthews was in camp with the Mets when he learned that close friend and former San Diego teammate Mike Darr had been killed when the SUV he was driving rolled over on a freeway late one night as he was returning to the Padres' Peoria, Ariz., training facility. Matthews was already with his fourth club in four seasons. He couldn't overcome Darr's death that spring, he confided, not feeling mentally strong enough to either attend the funeral or offer condolences to Darr's wife. And after batting .190, Matthews was traded to the Orioles just after the start of the regular season. He didn't notify anyone in his family about the transaction, and as he drove from New York to Baltimore, Matthews contemplated the apparent shambles of his life and career. His father called, snapping Matthews back from oblivion. "That's when we had it out," Matthews said. "He said, 'What's going on with you? I know you're really struggling with Mike's death, but you need to find a way to get over it. You need to call her because you're not the only one trying to cope.'" Darr was 26 and beginning his fourth Major League season at the time of his death. He left his young wife and three little children. Heeding his father's advice, Matthews finally made that belated call to Darr's widow. "I was driving to Baltimore, crying, telling her how sorry I was that I didn't call," Matthews said. "She said that it was going to be OK and that it was a new beginning for everyone. She said she hoped it would mean a fresh start for me and new beginning for me also. By the time we got off the phone I was pulling up to Baltimore. I felt like a ton of weight was lifted off my shoulders." It wasn't until four years and three teams later that "Little Sarge" put it all together -- the big season, the big contract and a place to play for the next five years. His family, of course, is the big beneficiary, not to mention a baseball player who finally seems to be at peace.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.