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Good Matheny article

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  • Good Matheny article

    I meant to post this a while back but forgot. I was reminded tonight.

    Y'all will like this.


    Baseball Without the Steroids
    Now that the biochem labs are in retreat, the Giants, of all teams, are leading a defensive rebellion

    by Chris Jones | Jun 01 '05

    MIKE MATHENY DOESN'T KNOW THIS, but the lowest point in his career came in a batting cage. Six seasons ago, not long before he was released by the Toronto Blue Jays, he was taking cuts prior to a game in Minnesota. He wasn't going to play; he almost never played. But he was working hard all the same, hoping to shorten a stroke that left him swinging at too many pitches that had already been called strikes.

    Jim Fregosi, Matheny's unadmiring manager, happened to be sitting in the dugout that afternoon, trying to enjoy an illicit cigarette. The look on his face indicated that he was not. Instead, he was watching Matheny grinding away at his swing, a sort of sadly dishonest exercise, hopelessly optimistic, like a man without fingers refusing to give up his dream of playing the piano.

    Fregosi watched for as long as he could stomach it before literally turning his back on the spectacle. "I can't look at that," he said. "Tell me when it's over."

    For all parties involved, it was over soon enough. Blinded by that god-awful swing, Fregosi never saw what mattered more about Matheny: This quiet, thoughtful block of a man was set to become one of the best defensive catchers in the history of the modern game.

    And soon it would be the game's turn to catch up to him.

    MIDNIGHT FINISHES, locker rooms turned into laboratories, hacksaws like Alfonso Soriano tripping over second base ... all of this has conspired to break our purist hearts. Broken along with them have been so many disposable heroes—Jose Canseco, Brady Anderson, Joey Belle—and now, it seems, so many more are poised to fade away into a tainted history. Jason Giambi gets sick. Ivan Rodriguez loses twenty pounds. Steroid testing is acting like a screw turned into the wire, making plain the truth that has been coming since that ridiculous night in Cleveland when Canseco knocked one out of the park with his head instead of his hands: With power comes blackouts.

    Amid all this darkness, Brian Sabean, the general manager of the San Francisco Giants, of all teams, has become the first to strike a match, the first to see how the new baseball will be played. And lucky for Matheny, he's hung on just long enough for the game to come around, for his glove to do for him what steroid testing might do for baseball: It's made his bat irrelevant.

    Sabean and his manager, Felipe Alou, watched their team miss the playoffs by a single game last season and decided it was time for a change. Even Barry Bonds, the best hitter in the world, had failed to lift San Francisco into October. (It didn't help that the rest of the Giants had gone through too many soft weeks, the lineup slumping together as if tied to the same string.) Adding more home-run hitters seemed like overkill. Genuine pitching talent was too expensive; the Florida Marlins, like the Philadelphia Phillies before them, had banked on speed and run themselves into the ground. The only tool that remained in the shed was defense—which the Giants, incidentally, had played about as poorly as anybody.

    "We were surprised at how inept we were," Sabean says now. "Fixing that was something I just had to do."

    Enter Matheny, a catch-and-throw guy in an age in which there are too few. Last winter, Sabean signed him to a three-year, $10.5 million contract, the sort of money and commitment Matheny never allowed himself even to dream about.

    Looking at him, you'd think he couldn't have been anything but a catcher. He's not especially muscled, but he's thick in his legs and chest, with a strong jaw and tired eyes—the sort of man who wouldn't look strange with a miner's lamp on his head. Unlike most big-league catchers, Matheny has known since he was ten years old what his gifts were. The first signs surfaced as bruises: For whatever reason, Matheny had a stone-cold knack for blocking -pitches in the dirt.

    Such talents were not always prized; long before he turned Fregosi's stomach, he seemed doomed to a mistimed career. To wit: Felipe Alou was managing the Montreal Expos when he first saw Matheny catch, then for the Milwaukee Brewers. By Alou's old eyes, Matheny did all the small things right: He framed -pitches and threw well, called a good game, and demonstrated a fearlessness that today's high-end players had traded in for bluffs and posturing. Alou was so impressed, he begged Montreal's front office to acquire Matheny. The Expos looked at his numbers—entering this season, he had a lifetime batting average of .239—gagged, and decided they'd rather not.

    Matheny was soon released by the Brewers and next by the Blue Jays. He got one last chance with the St. Louis Cardinals, in 2000. And although he had a forgettable first spring with them, the rest of their lineup was productive enough for them to take a chance on carrying an easy out. Matheny caught on opening day, the Cardinals began winning, and he was on his way to a starting job and the first of three Gold Gloves. He went on to set records for the most consecutive errorless games and the most chances without an error. Finally, last season, with his Cardinals making the World Series, he was recognized for what he always has been: the best thing going behind the plate, if not at it.

    "I have no idea why I got my shot," Matheny says. "What I did in St. Louis was exactly what I did in Milwaukee and what I did in Toronto. I didn't go about my business any differently. I think it was just being in the right place."

    Now he's in the right time, too.

    Felipe Alou likes to remind people that he was a pitcher in college, and after he was signed by the Giants, he assumed he would find a place on the mound. But the Giants decided an arm so good belonged in the outfield—can you imagine?—and Alou's sweet defense ranked up there with Roberto Clemente's. Today, Alou would never get a chance to set foot on the grass. He would be a pitcher, probably marginal, and some rag arm with a club would take his place in right.

    It's hard to pin down how defense was lost as an art, but a heap of the blame has to rest at the feet of those four-eyed dorks who invented Rotisserie League baseball. So began the game's obsession with offensive numbers. Those things that were harder to quantify—an outfielder's range, a shortstop's intelligence, a catcher's footwork—were brushed aside as so much clutter.

    The real game followed fantasy. HR became the trump statistic. It was above reproach, beyond debate, tangible, and easy to understand. Players who went into arbitration meetings with good power numbers came out with big checks. Defense went unrewarded. ("You can't put your glove on the table," Alou says.) Middle infielders and backstops suddenly decided that if they wanted to get paid, they would have to hit home runs. That sparked a kind of frenzy: Mark Belanger made way for Cal Ripken, Mike Scioscia for Mike Piazza. Their run production set new standards, and mediocre position players were pulled in to feed the machine as never before.

    The mediocrity is now systemic. Young players eschew infield practice in exchange for more time in the cage. By the time they get to the big leagues, they are one-dimensional and thoughtless, Neanderthals without grace. For decades in baseball, fielding drills were mandatory before every game, all summer long. Today, a team that can convince its players to glove up before the first game of a road trip is doing something special, the Giants among them. "Managers don't have the grip on their players they used to," Alou says. Not surprisingly, those players have lost their grip on the ball.

    That, along with his team's bumbling and the sense of change in the baseball air, prompted Sabean to return to the game's old logic, forgotten for so long that now it sounds like genius. "If you can't catch the ball, if the routine play isn't a routine play, if you can't make the big play to get yourself out of an inning, that's a huge drain," he says. "I'd much rather see us play good defensive games. They're cleaner, faster. A pitcher with a good defense behind him isn't going to be nipping at the strike zone, thinking he has to do it all himself. He's going to be comfortable, confident. Defense is almost never going to slump. And just about every one of our guys has a chance to change the outcome of the game with his glove."

    Even before last winter's epiphany, Sabean had a solid first baseman in J.T. Snow and a competent outfield. But by adding Matheny and slick-fielding shortstop Omar Vizquel, Sabean's pieced together a lineup that boasts a combined twenty-nine Gold Gloves. The only hitch is, because it's hard to find that kind of defensive pedigree among the game's new classes, Sabean's lineup also boasts a median age of sixty-eight.

    The nay-saying began in earnest when he signed the thirty-seven-year-old Vizquel to a three-year deal. But Sabean cared more about Vizquel's nine Gold Gloves than his slowing bat. He cared that when a runner is on first base, Vizquel gets a feeling in the pit of his gut—not dread but excitement, the sort of excitement that a man feels when he's about to get the chance to do what he does best. As well as anybody, Vizquel turns double plays. They are his thing.

    They always have been, but now Vizquel doesn't rely solely on his acrobat's touch. He studies. He knows which of his pitchers throw sinkers. He knows the speed of the runners. Most of all, he knows the hitters—which lefties hit away, which righties swing over top of the ball. You'll see him put his fist into his glove and shade one step to his left or two steps to his right. He knows where the ball is about to go and where his second baseman will want it, and he knows the instant contact is made how the rest of the ballet will unfold. He's seen it in his head a thousand times.

    All it takes is imagination to see it along with him. But more than anything else, this era has been too taken with facts, numbers masquerading as creative thinking, muscles confused for talent. For too long, baseball's been down on dreaming. Blame the triumph of science.

    A success story in San Francisco will change that. If the Giants, even in the middle of the craziness and mystery surrounding Bonds, manage to win the National League with finesse instead of brute force—even better, if they win without Bonds at all—they will do for defense what Oakland's Billy Beane did for on-base percentage. They will make art into a commodity again, the birth of yet another of baseball's inevitable cycles.

    Steroid testing is just the start. Next will come calls to boil out human growth hormone, for players to give up blood as well as urine; someone will get even sicker than Giambi got, or someone titanic will join Ken Caminiti among the prematurely dead. Then more general managers will lie awake wondering whether the ape they're thinking of signing is hollow-backed. Then kids who right now are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old, young enough to switch gears, will decide that there's more to life than dingers or taters or four-baggers, and they'll play the game the way it once was played. And then the next Brian Sabean won't have to turn his clubhouse into a retirement home just to field a lineup that knows how to have a catch.

    It's not quite the stuff of phoenixes and ashes, because it's just a game. But there is something bigger to it. There is something here that is emblematic of the age we're in. If nothing else, a catcher whose manager once turned his back on him is now the object of unabashed affection. It's an almost karmic shift.

    "He's my main man," Alou says. "Before, Matheny was not well evaluated. He was not well appreciated. That's changed."

    Forget Jim Fregosi and forget that god-awful swing. Now's high time to find beauty in the difficult, and Alou does, sitting back in the dugout and smiling to himself every time Matheny catches a new bruise. That's how much pleasure Alou takes in watching him play, watching the old facts on their way to becoming facts all over again.
    But wait. There is something that can be done afterall. My good friend Angelo is a cop in the Tampa/Clearwater area. Since I kept all of the files from the access logs when I had the power to see them, guess what, I have everyone's IP addresses. Hmm..what can I do w/ those??

  • #2
    Thanks - He was (still is) one of my favorite Cardinal players.
    Feb. 08, 2005
    Lois Lane: What's the general opinion of a gal asking the guy out?

    Lounge sponsor of YYZ and his Mardi Gras crew.
    Originally posted by Airshark
    NSane has already won - because the Sharks are well and truly ef'ed.


    • #3
      Pat Metheny?

      I'd be shocked if more than an handful of people on this forum even know who Pat Metheny is. <_<

      Mr. G