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ChopTalk: Matthews' presidential pal

ChopTalk: Matthews' presidential pal

A crowd estimated in the millions flooded the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20 to witness the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. Few had a better seat than former Braves outfielder Gary Matthews.

As a personal friend of the former Illinois senator, Matthews was seated near the podium where Obama took the oath of office and gave his inaugural address.

The scene and experience struck Matthews at his core, as millions of Americans of all backgrounds shared their adoration in the foreground.

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"It was totally emotional to be part of history," said Matthews, who also was in a small group that toured the White House with Obama. "You look out and see so many people. It was special to be part of something great like that. There are no words to describe it."

In the days before he was sworn in, Obama also invited Matthews to join him on the train ride from Philadelphia to Washington, which retraced part of the route taken by Obama's political hero, Abraham Lincoln, to his inauguration in 1861.

"The amazing thing for me was seeing all the people waiting and waving [along the train route]," Matthews said. "We were up and down on the train, but I got to talk with Barack and Michelle. I was in awe that he was on his way to become president. I interviewed Bill Clinton and was in awe of him, but it was different with Barack, because I know him on a personal level."

Matthews met Obama by sheer chance when their daughters were part of the same dance class in Chicago. Their relationship grew into a friendship through which they played golf and planned cookouts together.

"I'm not one of the guys you see playing basketball with him, but I do get invited to certain things," Matthews said.

Obama's campaign, election and inauguration continued a string of personal successes for Matthews, a color analyst for the Philadelphia Phillies who was part of the team's run to its first World Series championship since 1980.

Matthews even wrote a book "Phillies Confidential: The Untold Story of the 2008 Championship Season" ($13.57 at amazon.com) about his experience covering the Phillies.

"I've had a heck of a year," Matthews said. "This came at a perfect time for me. To be able to live through it again after playing in [the] '83 [National League Championship Series with the Phillies] and beating the Dodgers, for these guys to come out and take it another step further, it was really a tearful moment. I almost kind of felt the way I thought I would had I been a player."

Broadcasting provides daily challenges for the competitive 58-year-old Matthews, and it also keeps him around the game he grew up playing as a kid in California. He believes the two decades he spent in the Major Leagues as a player (1972-87) and coach provide him with unique insight inside the booth.

"Guys who played can add a different dimension," Matthews said. "You have guys who've done this for 10 to 15 years or longer, but not with the perspective of having gone through and been a part of the fire. I like being challenged to see whether or not I do know the game. It's a tremendous amount of work, if you do it right, and we're not without our harsh critics."

Though he has served as a Minor League hitting coordinator for the Cubs and as a Major League hitting instructor for the Blue Jays and Brewers, Matthews has no plans to return to the game in an on-field capacity.

"I'm done," Matthews said. "They got me out of there. It's enjoyable if you're able to do your job. I loved being down there, but everybody wants to be a hitting coach."

Instead, he has designs on expanding his reach with a microphone.

"I'm trying to get to be the best I possibly can and maybe expand to do some of the national stuff," Matthews said.

Matthews has an excellent track record. He spent 16 seasons in the Major Leagues as an outfielder and designated hitter, compiling 2,011 hits, 234 home runs and a solid .281 batting average. Known for his ability to perform under pressure, "Sarge" -- as he was affectionately known -- was named Most Valuable Player in the 1983 NLCS. He hit .429 with three homers and eight RBIs as the Phillies wiped out the Dodgers in five games. All told, Matthews batted .323 in four career postseason series with the Phillies and Cubs, hitting seven homers and driving in 15 runs in 19 games.

"You'd have to ask pitchers from my era what kind of player I was," Matthews said. "It was a different ballgame when I played. I took pride in trying to hit in the clutch."

Matthews, whose son Gary is an outfielder with the Angels, spent four of his 16 seasons with the Braves after signing with Atlanta as a free agent in 1976. In 588 games with the Braves ('77-80), he batted .288 and averaged 20 home runs, 85 runs scored, 161 hits and 73 RBIs.

"It was a great time," Matthews said. "I played with some great young guys. I wouldn't give that experience up for anything. I loved Atlanta."

The Braves dealt the 1973 NL Rookie of the Year to the Phillies in a trade for pitcher Bob Walk prior to the 1981 season. Matthews helped lead Philadelphia to the '83 World Series, but the Phillies lost the series in five games.

"I felt every time I was traded that the team that was getting me was going to get the best end of the deal," Matthews said. "Nobody likes to be traded, but it's also good to be wanted."

Matthews closed his career with the Cubs and Mariners. During Chicago's run to a division title in 1984, he finished fifth in MVP voting, hitting .291 and leading the league with 103 walks, 10 sacrifice flies and a .410 on-base percentage. The Cubs raced out to a 2-0 lead over the Padres in the NLCS, only to collapse and bow out in five games. The memory still haunts Matthews, a married father of five who resides in Chicago with his wife of 13 years, Sandy.

"So many times I think about not getting there with the Cubs," Matthews said. "We all would have become heroes had we gotten it done."

This article appears in ChopTalk magazine This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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