Riley ready to make his pitch

Orioles: Matt Riley has grown up in the past four years, and he's taking aim at the starting rotation.

March 07, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - First of all, the vanity plate wasn't Matt Riley's idea. That's one thing his father wants to make clear.

With a group of veteran Orioles teammates that included Cal Ripken, Mike Mussina and B.J. Surhoff, Riley didn't exactly endear himself to his peers when he rolled into the parking lot four years ago in a Mercedes-Benz with a license plate that said, "24KTARM."

It was a brash statement for a 20-year-old whose big league career spanned all of 11 innings.

"Matthew never would have gotten that plate," Jesse Riley said. "That plate was a gift from me and his mother. Matthew was honoring his mother and father by putting it on there.

"If I'd have known it was going to cause him so much trouble with some of the players on the team, we never would have bought that plate for him."

Jesse Riley realizes that was the starting point for his son's troubles. Lectures from teammates about being too cocky. Lectures from the manager about constantly being late for practice. An arrest at a Fort Lauderdale beach.

And that was just the 2000 spring training.

Later that season, Riley's golden arm broke down. He needed reconstructive elbow surgery, and some wondered if he'd ever make it back to the big leagues. But the kid never quit. Jesse Riley has never known his son to quit.

This spring, Matt Riley has a chance to make good on all the promise he has shown. The Orioles are hoping he can parlay the success he had in two September starts against the Toronto Blue Jays and claim a spot in the starting rotation.

"It's probably his spot to lose," said Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan.

So at age 24, Riley is back in Fort Lauderdale, the site of so many past problems, facing the latest, and perhaps the biggest, test of his career.

This time, Riley plans to apply all the lessons he has learned since that fateful 2000 season.

"People say I wasted four years," he said. "I didn't waste four years. I took four years to grow up."

Early tastes of success

Surhoff and Mussina had seen it all before. They took one good look at Riley four springs ago and made some not-so-subtle suggestions about toning down his act.

"He was a young kid who thought everything was about flash," Surhoff said. "I don't think he realized that everyone in this clubhouse was good at some point. He wasn't going to be able to blow the ball by people."

Tracing Riley's steps growing up in Northern California, it's easier to understand why he felt so entitled that spring.

This was a kid who was 6 feet tall by the age of 12. He dominated almost everything he played from baseball to football to basketball. To this day, Riley stands just 6-1. The man-child has only grown an inch.

"When he was at home, he wasn't a free-spirited kid," said Jesse Riley, who has worked with a shipping company for the past 30 years. "He was just a normal kid. We never had any problems with Matt, as far as any trouble. He was always a good kid, a likable kid, kind of like a teddy bear."

Riley grew up in a middle-class home, the oldest of three children. His first and only love was sports. He told his dad he was going to be a major league baseball player someday, but he was pretty good at football, too.

As a freshman at Liberty Union High, Riley was a tailback on the varsity football team. In one game that season against De La Salle - a school from Concord, Calif., that is currently riding a 151-game winning streak - Riley rushed for 120 yards.

In the first half alone.

He played quarterback as a sophomore, and Arizona State eventually sent a recruiting letter to see if he was interested in playing football. But by the 11th grade, Riley had made the decision to focus exclusively on baseball.

As a left-handed pitcher with a fastball that could top 90 mph and a curveball that dropped off a cliff, Riley had tools that scouts love.

He made the 1998 U.S. Junior Olympic team, and he teamed with Rick Ankiel, another promising left-handed pitcher who reached stardom for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2000 before quickly falling on hard times.

Joining the Orioles

The Orioles made Riley their third-round pick in the 1997 draft. He held out for one season, spending the year at Sacramento City Junior College, where he helped lead the baseball team to a 44-2 record.

Then, he finally signed with the Orioles for $750,000.

"When I got that money, I put myself in situations that maybe I wasn't ready for, as far as going from a kid to a man," Riley said. "But that's all part of growing up. I was able to take those experiences and turn into a better person."

The low point came in September 2000, when Riley blew out his left elbow and had to undergo the Tommy John ligament transplant surgery.

Orioles minor league pitching coordinator Dave Schmidt said the organization was starting to see Riley make progress late that season, before the injury struck. Some of the lessons from that spring training were sticking.

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