How does Matlack approach his job as a coach and a developer of talent? With the same fire, tenacity, and bottom line he did when he was a member of arguably one of the finest pitching staffs in baseball history.
Matlack evaluates each pitcher he meets and coaches individually. He believes in situational coaching depending upon whether he has a ready and willing self-starter, a willing but raw talent, or an unmotivated but talented player. Matlack's bottom line is the player's ability to adjust, adapt and overcome. This, he says, is the essence of competing. Some guys have it immediately, others have it but might need some polishing to bring it out, and others don't have it at all.
So, how's Matlack doing? Let's take a look at two of the more heralded pitching prospects to come out of the Detroit Tigers' organization in the last year.
Jeremy Bonderman, thought enough of by the Oakland A's to make him their first round selection in the 2001 draft, made his major-league debut last April after he was acquired by the Tigers in a three-team trade that sent Jeff Weaver to the New York Yankees. So far this year, though, Bonderman is 3-13 with an ERA of 4.88. He is, however, a quality young prospect on a bad team. These stats will turn around.
Franklyn German is another pitcher acquired in the same Jeff Weaver trade. German is intimidating. He stands 6'4" tall, weighs 250 lbs, and fires the ball upwards of 95 mph. That's bringing some heat. German has a four-pitch arsenal, and his control of them will only improve. So far this year, German is 2-3 with 5 saves, a 3.90 ERA, and 34 strikeouts in 32 innings pitched. Some scouts tab him as having a breakout year in 2003 or 2004.
At first glance, the stats may spell something other than success. Don't let the stats fool you. Even though baseball is a stat-driven sport, there are plenty of winners behind what appears to be initial losing stats. Greg Maddux was 8-18 in his first two years in the majors, and the Chicago faithful didn't run him out of town. Tom Glavine was a woeful 9-21 in his first two years, but Atlanta management saw enough of something in their developing young talent to keep him around.
Maybe Jon Matlack sees something of himself in the players he now develops and coaches. Maybe he sees something in Bonderman and German that we, the fans, don't see. Maybe he sees the potential for magic. And maybe Matlack really does have a winning vision for his players' futures. The Mets certainly did when they called up a raw 21-year old pitcher in 1971. That guy finished 0-3 with a 4.14 ERA.
Jon Matlack spent 12 seasons as a major-league pitcher, spent 4½ years in the minor leagues, and played countless games in Little League, High School, and Legion ball. During his career with the Mets, he was part of pitching rotation that included Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and, for one season, Nolan Ryan. That is some staff. The magical qualities that Jon Matlack displayed as a player are now being demonstrated as a coach as he oversees the progress of pitchers and as it relates to their career development plans.
Jim Bouton once said, "You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time." It could be argued that baseball will always grip Jon Matlack's life - only this time as a coach.
And even as a coach, one can still influence magic from the pitcher's mound.
John C. Sinclair writes a New York Mets historical column every Wednesday on NYMFansOnly.com