O's prospect Riley has out-of-ordinary look, talent

May 30, 1999|By John Steadman

Much is different from the norm and what's perceived as the conventional, even if he is does have an excuse. After all, he's left-handed. Matt Riley has rings on his ears, eyebrows and tongue, tattoos on each shoulder and a funk haircut. He also is the most promising pitcher, plus being the most expensive, in the entire minor-league system of the Orioles.

Such personal affectations (it was impossible to discern if he had bells on his toes) stimulate Riley conversation and give Riley the appearance of being a lead guitar player in a hard-rock band. It's when he takes off the jewelry and begins to throw a baseball that he draws undivided attention. His fastball can be overpowering, and the curve breaks with all the wicked severity of a Texas cow horn.

At this point, he's not to be put on the candidates list for the Hall of Fame because he doesn't resemble the likes of Sandy Koufax (but he thinks he pitches like him), Hal Newhouser or Steve Carlton. Not quite. Give him time, patience and understanding. Then see what he delivers.

At 19, Riley is a bundle of enthusiasm but not yet a professional for a full season. It would be unfair to proclaim him as the most gifted left-hander since Dave McNally stopped traffic in the Orioles organization and went about piling up strikeouts in the Eastern League, an earlier version of where Riley is pitching now.

It would be sinful, almost a crime, to force-feed him and call Matthew Paul Riley to Baltimore before his time. Due to the precociousness of youth, he believes he's going to be ready to take the trip from the Bowie Baysox to the Orioles within three months. His total record in Single-A, last year at Delmarva and this year after a brief spell at Frederick, total a modest 7-6. It's the massive total of strikeouts that he has put in the score book that sets him apart and causes such a buzz of contemplation.

Let's hasten to point out that the kind of firepower he brings with him far exceeds the ordinary. He also has an individuality all his own, which no one wants to reshape.

When he approaches the base lines, between innings, en route to the mound or dugout, he not only respects the age-old superstition of not stepping on the chalk, but also physically makes the action resemble a standing broad jump.

Ed Sprague, the scout who signed Mike Mussina, first saw Riley as a 15-year-old sophomore at Liberty Union High in Oakley, Calif. "He came on in relief, and after watching him warm up, I wondered to myself, `Now, who is this?' The team he was with wasn't that good, but he was throwing 91 and 92 mph. And I liked his compact delivery. He reminded me a little of Don Gullett."

Riley soon became a high-profile prospect. Every organization knew about him and liked his chances. The Texas Rangers had the same high level interest as the Orioles, who took him on the third round in the 1997 draft, but he wanted at least $750,000 for a signing bonus -- which he got. Other clubs were reluctant to draft him when the asking price was that high.

Gary Nickels, then the scouting director, and two others no longer with the club, general manager Pat Gillick and his assistant, Kevin Malone, watched him pitch. Sprague remembers Gillick saying, "Wow. We've got to get him signed."

The 6-foot-1, 205-pound left-hander eventually got what he wanted, but not before spending a year at Sacramento City Junior College, where Sprague, highly complimentary of coach Jerry Weinstein and his assistants, says the evolution of turning him from a thrower into a pitcher began.

Meanwhile, the Orioles had a part-time scout, Tom Sugimoto, watch him and chart his pitches in every game. They were doing their homework. The Riley family trusted Sprague explicitly, but the club came within three days of the deadline of losing him, or Riley would have gone back into the 1998 draft had he not been signed with the Orioles.

"He's a free spirit but a fine young man," says Sprague, once an eight-year pitcher in the majors. "I'm so pleased to see what he has achieved so soon. He has all those rings and tattoos, but that's the kids of today. He's an absolutely good person from hard-working parents. Matt studies the game from every aspect, past and present, and you can hardly mention a player he doesn't know about."

So far, Riley has been able to throw strikes, as witness last year at Delmarva in the South Atlantic League when he struck out 136 and walked only 44 in 83 innings. This year, before being promoted to Bowie of the Eastern League, he had 58 strikeouts and issued 14 walks in 51 2/3 innings for Frederick in the Carolina League.

Syd Thrift, the Orioles' director of player personnel, who has looked at more players in his time than anyone else in the organization, is ecstatic over what he sees but, more importantly, what he envisions. "His fastball is exceptional and he has what I call a power curve that will break from a batter's forehead to his feet. It explodes," Thrift said.

Bowie manager Joe Ferguson and pitching coach Dave Schmidt, both with major-league backgrounds, are unanimous in liking Riley's chances. Schmidt was at Delmarva last year when Riley arrived and says his progress has been continual -- attributing it to natural ability but also strong work application in making full use of his talents.

With his sizable bonus, he bought an automobile, made some significant purchases for his parents and put the rest in an investment fund. Meanwhile, he contemplates a future in the major leagues.

Riley's innate ability, win or lose, approaches the spectacular, providing he avoids injury and hopefully the danger of over-coaching since such a temptation is always there. He has what can't be created -- enormous velocity and a curveball that makes a U-turn.

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