Matthews shines once given the chance
All-Star spot shows what Matthews can do with playing time
PITTSBURGH -- Tough talk can leave lasting impressions.San Diego Padres coach Davey Lopes laid it on the line for Gary Matthews Jr. at the end of the 2003 season. Matthews had just hit .271 with four home runs and 22 RBIs in 103 games and 306 at-bats. "It wasn't bad, but it wasn't anything special," Matthews said. The Padres had been Matthews' fifth club over three seasons, and the tag of "fourth outfielder" was growing large on his reputation. "He pulled me aside and told me I was running out of chances to be an everyday player," Matthews said. "Davey was flat-out honest. He said I have to stand up and get it done or fight that fourth outfielder label. He said, 'It's not there yet, but that's how people will perceive you.'" Matthews was undaunted. "I felt I still had the talent and skill to be an everyday player," Matthews said. "I felt if I got the opportunity, I'd put up the numbers." Finally getting the opportunity, Matthews is putting up the numbers, and on Monday, he took his place with Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz, Vladimir Guerrero and others as a member of the American League All-Star team that will face the National League on Tuesday night at PNC Park (7 p.m. CT, FOX). Matthews and Michael Young, selected for a third straight year, will represent the Rangers. "It's a blast every time," Young said. "I love being here. Those three days off would be a nice rest, but I wouldn't trade anything for this. The All-Star Game is a special experience." But the first is usually the most special, and Matthews gets to enjoy that right now after hitting .328 with 10 home runs and 47 RBIs for the Rangers in the first half. This coming from a guy who missed the entire Spring Training because of a ribcage injury, but has since firmly addressed the Rangers' leadoff/center field concerns. The message from Lopes sank in quickly. Matthews admitted it gave him something to think about in the offseason, and the All-Star Game is proof that the fourth outfielder label has been ripped to shreds. "I never doubted I had the talent or skill to play this game, but sometimes doubt set in if you'd get the right opportunity in the right place," Matthews said. "Sometimes you wonder if you're running out of time." The Atlanta Braves didn't prove to be the right place. They released him at the end of Spring Training in 2004, and Matthews watched Opening Day from the couch in his living room. The Rangers, who have basically had an unsettled outfield going back to their last division title in 1999, proved to be the right spot. Manager Buck Showalter trusted Matthews in center field, and hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo went to work with him on his swing and approach at the plate.
"Rudy turned my career around," Matthews said.Matthews, the son of a former Major League All-Star outfielder, took over the Rangers' starting center field job for good midway through last season and, in 160 games and 640 at-bats since July 1, 2005, he has hit .295 with 102 runs scored, 49 doubles eight triples, 24 home runs and 88 RBIs. "He has been huge," Young said. "To have a guy playing great center field and be able to carry us offensively is extremely important. He has been getting on base in the leadoff spot, scoring runs, driving in runs, robbing home runs. He has been special." Matthews is a full-time player, proving not only himself right, but someone else as well. His biggest supporter is the man called "Sarge." "My father never doubted me," Matthews said. "Even if I ever had the smallest of doubts, when I would let it get into my mind that I might not get the opportunity, my father never doubted it. "Even when I was hitting .200 or .215, he'd keep telling me, 'You're going to play every day.' I'd think, 'Man, I'm hitting .215 and my dad thinks I can still play this game at a high level.'" On Tuesday night, Matthews will play it at the highest level: the 77th All-Star Game. He had a lot of help in getting here.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.