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THE SARGE: MATTHEWS BACK IN CHI-TOWN
FLUSHING, NY.—When the Cubs won the National League East crown back in 1984, it was a mixture of youngsters and veterans that helped put Chicago over the top.
Now nearly 20 years later, one of the main cogs of that squad is trying to help lead the Cubbies back into the postseason.
Gary Matthews hit 14 homers and drove in 82 runs for a Chicago team that went 96-65 before bowing out to the Padres in the National League Championship Series in five games.
Now serving as Chicago’s hitting coach, “The Sarge” is trying to mold a winner out of a team that some think could be contenders for an NL Central Division title.
“For me, there’s been some unfinished business left since ’84,” said Matthews, who served on the Milwaukee Brewers coaching staff last season.
“With the pitching staff we have here, we have to play some sound defense. When we get a guy on third, we have to bring him in.”
“Obviously, we want to cut down on our strikeouts (a league-high 1,269, including four players with over 100) and raise our on-base percentage. The most important thing for us will be our execution of those skills.”
Some of Matthews’ job will be made a bit easier this year with a lineup that includes sluggers Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou.
However, his pet project this spring has been following the progress on rookie first baseman Hee Seop Choi.
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Korean was the Cubs’ Minor League Player of the Year in 2002 after slugging 26 homers and driving in 97 runs for AAA Iowa of the Pacific Coast League.
Management thought so highly of Choi that they didn’t offer a contract to incumbent first baseman Fred McGriff (30 HRs, 103 RBI) for 2003.
“He (Choi) had an average spring, but he has power and he’s a young guy that will get better.” said Matthews. “He’s probably the biggest baseball player to come out of Korea.”
“He’s a great guy to work with because he listens. His english has gotten a lot better. He has the potential to be a good player here for a long time.”
“We brought in Eric Karros (in a trade from the Dodgers) as insurance, but we really think he can be our everyday first baseman.”
Matthews previously served as the Cubs’ minor league hitting instructor from 1995-97. After leaving the Cubs in 1998, he became hitting coach for the Toronto Blue Jays for two seasons.
When asked if he had any aspirations to become a manager, the native Californian said he’s taking a wait and see attitude toward the opportunity.
“At some point, I would definitely like to run my own team,” Matthews added. “But whenever it comes, it comes. Right now, I want to get the best ability out of players and bring in a winning attitude.”
Opening Day turned out to be a banner day for Matthews, the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1973.
The Cubs pounded out 16 hits, including two homers by Corey Patterson, as they routed the Mets 15-2 in their opener.
Later that day, Matthews’ son, Gary Jr., stroked a 13th inning single to give the Orioles a 6-5 win over Cleveland in Baltimore’s opener.
When the younger Matthews made his Cubs debut on June 2, 2000 vs.
Detroit, he became the sixth son of a former Cub to also play for Chicago.
“I’m really happy for him because it seems like he’s found a home in Baltimore,” said the elder Matthews, who played with the Cubs from 1984-87.
“I was telling him after being traded almost four or five times that he was running out of teams. I think it’s about time that he got a place to play and he really did it all on his own. I’m very proud of the way he persevered through the adversity.”