A baseball lifer, Matthews living the life

A baseball lifer, Matthews living the life

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The line drive into the left-center-field gap demanded the pursuit of center fielder Gary Matthews. His legs churned, his arm chugged, his heart accelerated and his ears sealed. Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., was filled with Cardinals faithful Saturday afternoon, and the many clad in red were cheering as Brendan Ryan's line drive split the Mets' outfield defense. Matthews would hear none of it, though.

Instead, he heard only a reasonable facsimile of wind, the sound of air rushing past the cups of his ears as he sprinted into the gap.

"The same sound I heard when I ran as a kid," Matthews said. "You feel like you're really flying. And I still get a charge from that."

Matthews is decades removed from those pre-adolescent experiences that helped form his professional career. At age 35 and after playing parts or all of 11 big league seasons, he is trying to secure a place in the Opening Day lineup of the Mets -- Angel Pagan is his competition -- and do enough between now and the return of rehabilitating Carlos Beltran to retain roster relevance through the summer.

Passion developed years ago is a component in the fuel that drives him now. The Son of Sarge is one the fortunate ones who loves his job and, therefore, never has worked a day in his life. It is an abiding affection. He recalls riding busses in winter ball on narrow mountain roads -- "five feet from a 700-foot drop. If that isn't love, what is?" he asked.

Matthews doesn't know from Chuck Tanner, one of the managers his father didn't play for in his 16 seasons in the show. But he has the same sense Tanner expressed when he said: "The best thing you can do any day is win a baseball game; the second best is lose a baseball game."

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Indeed, this Junior has had that thought in his mind since an October weekend in 1984, when his father's team was on the threshold of a World Series appearance, before it became the 39th Cubs team not to win the World Series in a sequence of 70 seasons. "That series changed my life," Matthews said. "I was very impressionable."

Given his genes, he probably would have sought a career in baseball if the '84 Cubs never happened. But the Padres' elimination of the favored Cubs 26 years ago made baseball more compelling for the son. Even at a tender age, he came to see winning and losing in different lights that weekend.

"If you haven't lost a tight game, you can't full appreciate winning," Matthews said.

The Cubs had won the first two games of the best-of-five National League Championship Series, at Wrigley Field. And they had Rick Sutcliffe, the best pitcher in the NL that year, available to start Game 5 if it came to that.

The Padres won Game 3, 7-1. A final-pitch home run by Steve Garvey against Lee Smith -- "a Saturday night special," Garvey called it -- turned and evened the series the following night. Then on a San Digo Sunday, the Padres, assisted by a ground ball through the legs of first baseman Leon Durham and the most shrill crowd ever, scored four times in the seventh inning to deny the Cubs and motivate the 10-year-old son of the Cubs left fielder.

"I love those feelings -- the good and disappointing ones and the way you feel when you're playing. Maybe it's because you feel like you're a kid. But I never want to lose that feeling."
-- Gary Matthews

"My father thought I should experience a postseason series," Matthews said. "We lived in L.A., so he brought us down to San Diego. He was expecting we would get to see a celebration, even after they lost the first game in San Diego." With eyes wide shut and looking through the translucent plastic fence, Junior watched Garvey's rocket home run and the Cubs' advantage disappear. He recalls the Padres yelling in the runway that led to their clubhouse. He walked the corridor that led to the visitors' clubhouse.

"It was dim," he said. "Funny what you remember. ... I'd been a clubhouse rat. I couldn't get enough of it. I was always there in the summer when school was out and any time I could be. I developed bonds with some of those guys even though they were 15-years older than I was. ... And I remember how dim it was was.

"I'd never seen grown men cry. It really hit me that night and the next day. I was definitely influenced by that series. I guess because of all the emotion I saw, my love for the game and my understanding of the game reached new levels then. Everything became so much clearer to me in that series.

"I saw how much it meant to my father and his friends. My father was in the World Series [with the Phillies] the year before. He played in an All-Star Game. But he talks about losing that series [to the Padres] more than anything else. He's still so passionate about it."

Mathews compares his father's lasting angst with what he now feels about his experiences with the Angels. The Red Sox eliminated the Angels in the American League Division Seires in 2007-09. Then after the Angels finally avenged themselves last fall, sweeping the Sox, the Yankees denied the Angels. And the Angels had been such a postseason obstacle for the Yankees.

"We weren't as close as the Cubs got in '84, but we were thinking we could play in the World Series," Matthews said. "It hurt to lose. It hurt so much I couldn't watch the World Series, couldn't 'till someone told me my friend Jerry Hairston [Jr.] was going to start a game for the Yankees.

"I had to watch. And he got a hit. If you can't get in the World Series yourself, the next best has to be your best friend getting a hit. It was a great feeling. The game has a lot of them. It makes you feel alive.

"That's why I'm here. I love those feelings -- the good and disappointing ones and the way you feel when you're playing. Maybe it's because you feel like you're a kid. But I never want to lose that feeling."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.