Farming still in his system O's reliever Mathews follows family plot

March 20, 1997|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Orioles reliever Terry Mathews is the youngest of seven children, and naturally, his father said the other day, the youngest is always a little spoiled.

Sharing chores with three brothers and three sisters in Alexandria, La., Terry preferred the easiest jobs. "He liked to drive the tractor," remembered John Mathews. "But I thought he was better at hoeing and picking peas."

Terry Mathews' father is a farmer, and his grandfather is a farmer, and his great-grandfather was a farmer, in a long line of farmers. "Some of the family came over here from Belgium," John Mathews said. "I guess they were farmers over there, too."

John Mathews will raise cotton, soybeans and corn on 600 acres. The farmer's work cycle closely approximates a baseball season: Plow in February, plant in the spring and harvest in October. Two days after the Yankees eliminated the Orioles in the American League Championship Series last fall, Terry Mathews climbed aboard a cotton picker, helping his parents.

"He gets back here right at the busy time," John Mathews said. "You wait until the dew dries in the morning, and you go until you can't see anymore."

The number of family farms are dwindling, the farmers caught in a seemingly inescapable cycle. Produce prices stay the same or drop, while the cost of living rises, and the farmer's only recourse is to plant more crops, milk more cows, work harder. The Mathewses once supported their seven children on less than 150 acres. "Now we can't make it on 600," said John Mathews in a weary voice.

But the lifestyle only attracts Terry, who, with his wife, Emily,

and three children, lives in a home 200 yards from the house in which he grew up. He wants to farm when he retires from baseball. "I wouldn't like to depend on it," he said. "It's not that good of a business. But it's a great way to raise a family. Hopefully, [John Mathews] will farm long enough so that our kids will work for him. It was a great way to grow up."

What seemed drudgery as a child he now views as an asset: Hours upon hours spent in the fields, digging at weeds, thinking of hundreds of things he'd rather be doing -- but doing exactly what he should've been doing. "We got up just after daylight, ate breakfast and went to the fields," he said.

"We'd hoe, spray the Johnson grass [weeds], cultivate the crops driving tractors. It was as hot as it gets, but looking back on it, it was probably a pretty good time We didn't stay inside much. I liked being outside -- we didn't have any video games, and there was only one TV station.

"I grew up in nothing but a pair of shorts. We didn't wear shoes out in the fields -- we'd go barefoot all day, and our feet got so tough we could walk across rocks; it was like wearing a pair of tennis shoes."

When there was free time, the Mathews children would play games. Cousins lived in the area, "so that we might actually get like 15 kids together. We'd play basketball, or baseball. We'd use a fence [as a boundary], and play out in the pasture."

His parents encouraged their children to participate in sports, and Terry began at age 4, as a batboy for a T-ball team. Within a year, he was playing with kids two and three years older. Playing at Holy Savior Menard High in Louisiana, he earned all-state honors in football, baseball and track, and went on to Northeast Louisiana University. The Texas Rangers selected him in the fifth round of the 1987 draft, and he bounced from the Houston Astros to the Florida Marlins before the Orioles traded backup catcher Gregg Zaun for him last August.

Mathews, 32, pitched effectively for the Orioles, compiling a 3.38 ERA in 14 games, and the Orioles rewarded him with a two-year contract. Said one National League scout, "If you give that guy proper rest, his fastball makes him, for one inning, one of the most dominant pitchers in the game."

Mathews has played in the big leagues in parts of five seasons, but no matter where he begins a season, he always ends the year back home at harvest time, passing the days on a tractor.

John Mathews said, "It's a tough life."

He paused. "But I wouldn't trade it."

Orioles today

Opponent: Atlanta Braves

Site: West Palm Beach, Fla.

Time: 1: 05 p.m.

F: Starters: O's Rocky Coppinger vs. Braves' Denny Neagle

Pub Date: 3/20/97

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