Matthews' life is coming together
Outfielder chooses Angels in large part to be close to family
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Gary Matthews Jr. is at peace.There have been dark days and bright days for the switch-hitting center fielder and son of the former Major Leaguer known affectionately as "Sarge." But the younger Matthews knows this: He's playing at home in Southern California this season near his mother, his grandparents and his 8-year-old son. He's playing for an Angels team that gave him a five-year, $50 million contract and the first security he's ever had as a baseball player. "This is a great fit for me," Matthews said Monday in the clubhouse of Tempe Diablo Stadium. "It gave me the ability to accommodate my family and still accomplish goals that I've set in my career. It's incredible that that happened to me. You couldn't have written the script any better." Matthews was once the picture of the journeyman player. At 32, his baseball card now lists eight Major League stops in nine seasons, including San Diego twice. Never before has he played two full seasons in the same city. His bio is peppered with the words "claimed on waivers." But after a breakout All-Star season with Texas in 2006, Matthews became a free agent at the right time. The Giants came bidding and actually offered more money than the Angels. The deal would've given Matthews an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his father, a first-round Giants draft pick (1968) who played left field in San Francisco for his first five seasons (1972-76). "I could've have played in the organization he played in, an organization with a tradition and a really strong history of center fielders," Matthews said. "Garry Maddox, Willie Mays and Bobby Bonds. To follow that lineage was very attractive to me. It really was." But not attractive enough. The Angels were persistent and resolute. "At the time, he was the guy we focused on. There really were no other candidates," said Arte Moreno, the team's owner. "We feel that Matthews gives us a real opportunity to have a Major League center fielder." Personal issues also tugged at Matthews, he said, and were the determining factors. His mother, Sandra, has lupus, an autoimmune disease that leads to inflammation and damage to the body's joints and tissues. His son, Gavin, whom he sees sporadically, lives in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles with Gavin's mother and his stepfather. Matthews' grandparents reside about two hours inland from Angel Stadium in the high desert.
Immediately after signing the deal with the Angels, Matthews bought a house in Newport Beach that has a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean from the backyard. A good place for Gavin to play, his mother to convalesce and his grandparents to relax, he thought."I think in the end my family just won out," said Matthews, reflecting on why he chose the Angels. "I thought about my grandparents, who are 89 and 86, watching them get old, along with watching my son grow up. All these things I've missed out on. I just really wanted to put myself closer to them geographically." A .313 average with 19 homers, 79 runs batted in and 102 runs scored in 147 games for the Rangers put him in position to make that move. And a market that spiraled during free agency gave him a chance for financial security. Matthews scoffs at the notion that the big contract will create big pressure. "I'm dealing with things that are real-life issues," Matthews said. "When I get to go out and play a baseball game it is a welcome relief for me. A break for 3 1/2 hours when I don't have to deal with anything else. I get to go out and play baseball. It's such a relief and so gratifying. It's my escape. There's no pressure on me playing baseball." He has been through the lows, but he was never lower than in the spring of 2002, he recalled. "That spring was my lowest point, when I thought, 'Wow, maybe [baseball] is not in the cards,' " he said. Matthews was in camp with the Mets when he learned that close friend and former San Diego teammate Mike Darr had been killed when the SUV he was driving rolled over on a freeway late one night as he was returning to the Padres' Peoria, Ariz., training facility. Matthews was already with his fourth club in four seasons. He couldn't overcome Darr's death that spring, he confided, not feeling mentally strong enough to either attend the funeral or offer condolences to Darr's wife. And after batting .190, Matthews was traded to the Orioles just after the start of the regular season. He didn't notify anyone in his family about the transaction, and as he drove from New York to Baltimore, Matthews contemplated the apparent shambles of his life and career. His father called, snapping Matthews back from oblivion. "That's when we had it out," Matthews said. "He said, 'What's going on with you? I know you're really struggling with Mike's death, but you need to find a way to get over it. You need to call her because you're not the only one trying to cope.'" Darr was 26 and beginning his fourth Major League season at the time of his death. He left his young wife and three little children. Heeding his father's advice, Matthews finally made that belated call to Darr's widow. "I was driving to Baltimore, crying, telling her how sorry I was that I didn't call," Matthews said. "She said that it was going to be OK and that it was a new beginning for everyone. She said she hoped it would mean a fresh start for me and new beginning for me also. By the time we got off the phone I was pulling up to Baltimore. I felt like a ton of weight was lifted off my shoulders." It wasn't until four years and three teams later that "Little Sarge" put it all together -- the big season, the big contract and a place to play for the next five years. His family, of course, is the big beneficiary, not to mention a baseball player who finally seems to be at peace.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.