Junior Achievement: Finally Comfortable At Home, Rangers’ Matthews On Road To Stardom

By Richard Durrett
Updated: June 27, 2006

Gary Matthews Jr.

Gary Matthews Jr.

ARLINGTON, Texas — Gary Matthews Jr. didn’t need his dad to tell him the obvious.

The two talked, as they do every few days, just after the 2005 season ended and analyzed Matthews’ season. Gary Matthews Sr., a 16-year major league veteran and first base coach for the Chicago Cubs, had one question: Why are you hitting the ball so much better away from hitter-friendly Ameriquest Field?

It was the one big hurdle keeping Matthews Jr. from breaking out with a big season. He batted .219 in 65 games in Arlington and .290 elsewhere with one more at-bat on the road than at home.

“I told my dad I thought I needed to make my home more like the road,” he said.

Matthews discovered that life in a hotel room suited him. He took a nap and slept in a cool room. He could shut the curtains and tune out the world. And he felt rested and ready by the time he arrived at the ballpark.

So Matthews, 31, brought the hotel to the condominium he rents in Dallas. He bought a firm Tempur-Pedic queen bed that was more like those he slept in on the road. He changed the air filters and cranked up the air conditioning. He bought heavy, blackout curtains and scheduled a nap before coming to Ameriquest Field.

“I feel focused on my game no matter where we’re playing now,” he said. “I follow the same routine. It’s one thing that I think has helped me this season.”

It’s an All-Star worthy season. He’s one of the top hitters on the team at .332 (.326 at home) with eight homers and 40 RBIs. He has 25 doubles, fourth in the American League (and third on his team). His on-base percentage is .381, exactly what the Rangers need from a leadoff hitter. He’s done it despite missing nearly all of spring training with a strained rib cage.

So why has he emerged as a top AL center fielder this season, his eighth in the majors? It can’t be filtered air and a comfortable bed, can it?

“The main thing is I better understand the mechanics of my swing and know how to fix it,” Matthews said. “I used to get in a slump and couldn’t make a quick adjustment. Now I can, and I think that’s boosted my confidence.”

A hit with teammates

His teammates see a difference. They knew he had talent and the speed to cover center field. He’s made some spectacular catches, including robbing Arizona’s Shawn Green of a home run this month by scaling the wall in the deepest part of Ameriquest Field. They also knew he could be a solid hitter from both sides of the plate.

“You would see flashes of his talent for weeks at a time,” shortstop Michael Young said. “But this season, he’s figured out how to be more consistent. He trusts himself. He’s really carried us.”

Matthews blossomed about the same time he was moved to the leadoff spot. Brad Wilkerson wasn’t as suited to that role as the Rangers had hoped. The team had a terrible first week and was struggling at the start of its first road trip, when manager Buck Showalter told Matthews the club needed him to move to the top of the order.

“I was proud that they asked me, but I was worried I couldn’t do what they wanted me to do,” Matthews said. “I knew I wasn’t a slashing, bunting kind of leadoff hitter.”

Matthews called Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Kenny Lofton for advice. The veteran leadoff man told Matthews not to try to be a prototypical leadoff hitter. He said Matthews could still hit for power in the gaps and approach pitchers the way he always had.

And Matthews knew he’d see some good pitches with Young, the 2005 AL batting champ, hitting behind him.

“That made me feel better because I knew I could do it my way,” Matthews said. “I thought I could succeed at this level. I just didn’t think it would take this long.”

Matthews has been around baseball a long time. He spent his childhood in and out of clubhouses and dugouts as his father, nicknamed “Sarge,” roamed the outfield for five teams.

Gary Matthews Sr. played in the 1979 All-Star Game, was the NL rookie of the year in 1973 and MVP for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1983 National League Championship Series. But it was the 1984 NLCS between the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres that shoved the younger Matthews into a baseball career path.

A baseball junkie

“It was the first time I had an understanding of what this game is about as far as the emotions of winning and losing following my dad and the Cubs,” Matthews said. “I fell in love with this game then.”

But he wasn’t sure as he began his professional career if the game loved him. He was claimed off waivers three times in five seasons before landing in Texas.

Matthews was released by the Atlanta Braves before opening day in 2004 and signed a minor league contract with the Rangers a few days later. He began to show his skills playing every day the final few months of the 2005 season. And it’s culminated in a breakout 2006 season.

The success hasn’t changed Matthews. He’s the same understated, fun-loving teammate he’s always been. He walks around the clubhouse with his headphones on, listening to soft R&B (Faith Evans and Kem) to wind himself down before he gears up for a game. He follows a strict routine that includes weight training. He’s so devoted to improving his game that he doesn’t make time for dating or have much of a social life.

“He’s focused on what he wants to do, and I’m proud he’s found a home there,” Matthews Sr. said. “It’s still a long way to go. Can you be consistent the whole year? I think he can. I don’t ever doubt his desire and ability to give 100 percent on every play. He does what it takes.”

Even if it means bringing the road back home.