`Low point' turns into the best move of Matthews' career

ORIOLES PLUS

Disappointed by trade to O's, he's now a starter

Baseball

April 06, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The low point? Orioles center fielder Gary Matthews pauses for a moment and scans through the toughest memories of a frustrating career.

There was the time the San Diego Padres gave up on him after touting him as a future star. And there was the time the Chicago Cubs waived him just when his promise was starting to show.

But the low point? "The low point was probably the trade to Baltimore," Matthews said.

And he knew this was something he had to explain.

Right now, the trade to Baltimore looks like the best thing that ever happened to Matthews. He came to the Orioles last April from the New York Mets for left-handed reliever John Bale and blossomed into an everyday player.

The Orioles were so thrilled, they let go of center fielder Chris Singleton this past offseason, handing the job to Matthews. For the first time in his career, Matthews entered a new season knowing he had a permanent place in a major league lineup.

But on April 3, 2002, Matthews couldn't see that coming.

Seven weeks earlier, one of his best friends had died in a car crash. Mike Darr was getting settled in at spring training with the Padres when he rolled his SUV and died on a highway outside Phoenix.

With his emotions in tatters, Matthews struggled all spring with the Mets, batting a lowly .159. Few thought it would come to that for Matthews, whose father, Gary Matthews Sr., played 16 years in the big leagues.

The Padres envisioned an outfield with Matthews in center and Darr in right, but Matthews struggled at Triple-A Las Vegas in 1999, and San Diego traded him to the Cubs the next spring.

Matthews started to see consistent playing time for Chicago in 2001, putting together consecutive three-hit games in early July, but with the club facing a roster crunch, they placed him on waivers in August. The Pirates claimed Matthews, and he hit .245 the rest of the season.

The vagabond existence continued, as Pittsburgh traded him to the Mets three days after Christmas. Less than four months later, he was sitting in a Manhattan hotel, looking forward to the next day's trip to Atlanta, where his mother and grandparents were waiting to see him.

"I hadn't seen my mom in a while, and I really needed to see some family at that time," Matthews said. "I got a call at 10 that night, and they said I'd been traded to Baltimore. I was really disappointed."

Matthews didn't sleep much, and he drove to Baltimore the next day feeling depressed. This time, it wasn't just a new team, but a new league. For Matthews, this simply didn't seem the right time in his career for that kind of change.

"People always talk about how it takes a year to make the transition to the American League," Matthews said. "I was like, `I don't have half a season or a year to make an adjustment. I've got to do it right now.' "

Matthews put on a good face and came to Camden Yards, where he met up with a swing doctor, Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley. After giving Matthews time to get settled, Crowley started working with Matthews on a new approach.

"I'm not sure what other organizations did with him," Crowley said, "but I think the general feeling was, `You're a big strong guy; hit the ball over the fence.' And I felt with our approach, he'd hit more home runs and hit for a higher average."

Matthews hit just seven home runs last season, but his average jumped to .275 from .227 the previous season.

With David Segui getting hurt early in the season, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove started slotting Matthews third in the lineup, the spot normally reserved for the team's best hitter.

"It gave me a chance to work with Terry Crowley, and he assures you that what you have is good enough, so you can keep working," Matthews said. "I think Terry's probably just as responsible as anyone for helping me make the adjustment."

Maybe it's a pure coincidence, but Matthews went down with a right wrist injury on Aug. 23, the night the Orioles evened their record at 63-63. He didn't start the final 36 games, and the team turned in the worst finish in major league history, going 4-32.

The Orioles haven't blamed that stretch on Matthews' injury, but they do see better things ahead with Matthews hitting second in the lineup, one spot ahead of Segui.

Matthews, who turns 29 on Aug. 25, said he was in the outfield one day this spring, thinking about all the twists and turns his career has taken. He was amazed when he realized this will be his 10th pro season.

"I was thinking about how far I've come, and how long it's taken me to get to this point," Matthews said. "Some scouts and people thought I wouldn't make it, so I definitely appreciate where I am."

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