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Newark Bears Fan Speaks with Julyís Fan Club Player of the Month, Matt Wagner!
Newark Bears Fan spoke with Matt Wagner, the Newark Bears Fan Club Player of the Month for July 2003.
Newark Bears Fan: What drew you to baseball in the first place? When did you start playing?
Matt Wagner: Some of my earliest memories are baseball, playing Cub Scout softball. I remember myself and my two brothers were on the same team and my dad was the coach. We went undefeated one year, so from that point on I just loved the game.
NBF: Why did you start pitching, was it something they needed you to do, or something you wanted to do?
One of the coaches asked me to pitch and I said fine, and then I caught, too, and then the next year, my second year of player pitch, my younger brother was on my team and Iíd pitch, heíd catch. Heíd pitch, Iíd catch, so weíd just take turns basically.
NBF: On game day, you have any special physical or mental exercises or regimens or good luck charms?
Nothing really, aside from my routine. Once I come out and start stretching, my warmup routine is usually the same: I run a couple going out to the center field fence and back, and then run a sprint like just to the cut of the grass,Öthen I go into the bullpen and I have my routine there where I start off with fastballs, work out of the stretch, go into my breaking pitches, and then come back to the windup,Öand then finish with working a right-hand hitter and working a left-hand hitter and take them out for the game.
NBF: So game dayís not really that different?
No. Iíve had times where I shagged bp [batting practice] whereas normally we definitely donít have to. A starting pitcher can do whatever [he wants] really, so I go out and shag bp sometimes, sometimes Iím just hanging out, I really donít have anything special I do.
NBF: Have you had a manager, player, or coach thatís made a particular impression on you or that you were particularly fond of for some reason?
Hell, Iíve had a lot. At every level really, going back even to where I first started pitching in fourth grade or fifth grade, Iíve always been lucky to have good pitching coaches, people that understand good pitching and throwing. The person that taught me my routine,Öand taught me the proper mechanics to be consistent, [was] Ron Romanick, my double-A pitching coach in í95. He taught me a routine to whereÖI had the same delivery with every single pitch, and threw strikes, went after hitters, and that had to do with him teaching me the routine which I still use to this day when I go out and get ready to start the game.
NBF: One thing thatís kind of a black box to the fans, what the coaches do. We see Pete Filson walk from the dugout to the mound and back and thatís really all we see.
Peteís worked with me, because sometimes itís really easy, especially when things are going well, to start developing a bad habit, that later on will really become apparent. I will get lazy at times to where my arm circle gets a little bit slower on the back side, and heís always constantly [saying] keep your hands moving, keep your hands moving, so when you break them youíve got momentum to get your hand up. Thatís one thing he definitely stays on me with, and that being in the back of my mind helps me.
NBF: You were out for a couple of years with an injury. It was after Montreal, wasnít it?
I finished the year in Seattle in í96 and was traded to Montreal; my arm had been bothering me all spring and then [I] wound up having a good spring, broke camp with the team, headed to Montreal, was doing my side work, and the pitching coach [noticed that my arm didnít] really feel good. Iíd pulled a peri-spinal muscle,Öitís on the back left side of my rib cage. In my last start against the Braves I pitched really well, last game before they went to OrlandoÖand then [up] to start the season. This was in í97. It was no big deal, just a slight strained muscle, so I still went up with the team, still scheduled to start the fourth game.
We get up there and have a practice the first day and Iím doing my side work,Öand the pitching coach [noticed that my arm wasnít right]. So that day they put me on the 15-day DL, and called up a reliever.
I fought to rehab back, had my first surgery in May, a month-and-a-half later, or two months later after they said they noticed it was bothering me.
NBF: So was that related to the peri-spinal thing?
Well, what I was doing to compensate was pulling on my front side with my glove, and I pulled so much to try and compensate for my sore arm that I pulled a muscle there. And then my first surgery was a scope, and they never addressed in that surgery the instability. So I went back in spring of í98, was having a decent spring, but I just wasnít ready and I pushed it too much. I pushed it a little bit too hard too quick, wound up getting hurt again, going on the DL,Öthen I had surgery, thatís when I had the reconstruction.
NBF: So how did you know when it was time to start coming back?
I didnít even think about it, really. I rehabbed the reconstruction and in my throwing progression you start off at 45 feet flat ground, 60 feet, 90 feet, 120, 150, then you get to the mound and you start five minutes, ten minutes, 12 minutes, 15 minutes; I got to 60 feet flat ground and my arm hurt on every single throw, like it was going numb. So I didnít get anywhere in my rehab after my second surgery. Then I went in in February of í99, had a third surgery, this time using a laser through a scope, which isnít as hard on your arm but it still is not good.
Same thing, got to the 60 feet flat ground and felt like my arm was going numb on every throw; it was bad, really strong pain, so at that point we were getting toward the end of the season, and I still had to do two semesters of school to finish up. I told Montreal, at this point my rehab is getting nowhere, Iím just going home; and I just shut it down. And I never actually retired so they put me on a restricted list. That was in í99. In 2000 I didnít [play], I was finishing up school, and working part time for [a] bank.
I was playing softball in 2000. All I played was first base because I couldnít throw, my arm was killing me. Then in 2001 I was playing softball again and all of a sudden it was like, shoot, it doesnít feel too bad. So I started playing some outfield and itíd get tired quick, it was so out of shape. Then in 2002, [one thing led to another and] I was playing [baseball again] and I wasnít feeling too bad. They talked me somehow into throwing an inning and I felt OK, all over the place mechanically, but then I threw two innings, then three, then four, then all of a sudden Iím just like, well, maybe I can do this again, Iím young enough still.
[At my wifeís urging] I got ahold of [a guy named] Joe Murphy. Heís now the Midwest scouting director for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays; he got ahold of Joe Klein, whoís president of this league [Atlantic] and Joe just said talk to your wife (this is at the all star break last year). He said think about it over the weekend and give me a call back on Monday and if you want to come out I can put you on the Pennsylvania team.
So it was a big decision: I quit my job and you know you donít make much money in this league, also Iím quitting a job with full benefits, everything, you know, and then leaving home, leaving my wifeÖ
NBF: What would you be if you werenít a baseball player?
I know some people that do pharmaceutical sales and I may go back and do thatÖthereís a lot of stuff, I do like to do baseball lessons, tooÖ
NBF: You did finish school? What was your degree in?
FinanceÖI really wish I had done accounting, and I could, I could go back, because theyíre so close, Iíd probably need four or five accounting courses, I would guess. All of my electives I took accounting. I love accounting. Itís stressful, itís very very stressful, and plus you have your busy season from January 1st through April 15th butÖI really wish I wouldíve done accounting.
NBF: So after baseball itíll probably be some kind of sales.
Probably, just because I like being with people and you have to be comfortable and personable to do [it], to be successful, and I donít mind that environment at all.
NBF: Would you rather hold an individual record, or would you rather perform poorly on a Championship team? Whatís more important in terms of what youíre going to remember when youíre eighty years old?
Thatís a tough one. Thatís hard to say, because I never played on a [professional] team at any level that ever won a championship, so I donít know that feeling. You can watch it on TV and you can think, wow, thatíd be the best thing in the world, because that can never be taken away from you; however, your individual accomplishments can never be taken away from you, either,Ö
NBF: In your experience what generates the most teamwork and camaraderie on a team?
You know, really the thing that works, but itís hard to do, is keeping the nucleus together. When you look at the Braves and the success theyíve had winning ten, eleven straight division titles, [and] theyíre going to win the division again this year more than likely, but keeping together that main nucleus of pitching and position players, too, with changing a guy here and there butÖthatís how you develop team camaraderie.
And, itís so hard to do at any level, especially in independent baseball, because you constantly have guys coming and guys going and once you develop a relationshipÖyou know, when we lost [Jose] Lima, Lima was a guy that no matter how we were doing he was up, and heíd get the team up. We could be losing 8-0 and he says a joke or something, and all of a sudden, our spirits are lifted; and the same thing losing [Al] Hawkins, and T. Hage. Tom and I were tight, the guy was hilarious, and so losiní himÖ
We replaced them, the guys weíve gotten are awesome guys, but, it just takes time to develop the same relationship that you had with the other guys.
Thatís the hardest thing in keeping a team togetherÖand you hope that [this team] can gel a little bit. We do, I mean everyone gets along, but thereís only six, seven weeks left in the season, not much time.
NBF: So what are your fondest memories of your baseball career so far?
Iíll go through a few, quick. Seventh, eighth, and ninth grade you have junior league, itís fast pitch, full length bases and everything, and the team that I was on, with my younger brother, won back-to-back championships in that league. In one of the years we beat my older brotherís team, and he was [a] star on that team. It was the World Series, we were the Cubs and they were the Aís, and I remember striking him out and youíd have to meet my older brother -- you talk about intense -- and I struck him out, and I didnít even go home that night. My younger brother and I stayed at another guyís house because we feared for our lives. And he actually threw at me in my next at bat, he was so mad. Iím up there and he actually threw a ball like right up in here [pointing just under his chin]. But, I talk to him. My younger brotherís out visiting him right now, those guys call non-stop, so I talk to them all the time. Heís just intense.
And then I actually in the next year threw a no-hitter in one of the World Series games in that same league; and then in high school, we went to the state tournament when I was a junior, which was the first time in our schoolís history to be in the state tournament, we didnít do very well but I donít even know if theyíve been back. I donít think they have, so one time basically in school history.
Pitching in the Hall of Fame game: I signed in Ď94 and they call up a handful of minor league guys and I wound up pitching in that game. Iíd signed, you know, in June, so Iím six weeks into my professional career and Iím facing big league hitters plus itís the Phillies coming off the í93 World Series so that was exciting for me. Iíve thrown three innings, given up like one hit, get the win.
Letís see, what else, obviously my major league debut in Cleveland on national TV; my first win, in Chicago -- that was fun, my parents were there; and then another fun one was Seattle, the King Dome. It was a Saturday night game so there were fifty some thousand people there. It was against Milwaukee, who you donít really think of as having had a real good team, but, they had a good hitting team, they just didnít have any pitching. I wound up throwing a complete game and after the third inning I gave up only one hit and it was a bunt single. [Fernando] ViŮa bunted to third, Doug Strange was playing third base, came in, threw the ball to first base, threw it wide to first so it was a hit with an error. ViŮa rounds the bag, rounds second, [Jay] Buhner [who was playing right, backing up the throw that went wide at first] picks up the ball in the bullpen in right field, doesnít even look, and no one was at third base. I was just, like, well, Iím going to drift over here just in case, because Doug Strange had come in to field the bunt so he was standing down by home plate. No one was at third base. ViŮa comes barrelling around, Buhner picks up the ball, doesnít look, throws an absolute strike, right on the bag, [I] tag him out.
NBF: So that was a 5-9-1 putout, you donít see those very often, right?
Yeah, unless it touched the first basemanís glove too it mightíve been a 5-3-9-1, but, either way, 5-9-1, hit with an error or whatever, andÖ[as a] matter of fact they wound up showing that play because Buhner won a Gold Glove that year and when they showed who won at each position they showed Buhner, and they showed that play; so that was the only base runner from the third inning all the way through the ninth inning; and, I mean, it was just like the tightest strike zone Iíve ever had but I was just like on, you know, everything was clicking, hitting my spots.
I would say that and just the overall experience of playing with so many guys that are either already in the Hall of Fame or are absolute locks; I gave up a 481 foot home run to [Mark] McGwire in the King Dome, I canít say Iím proud of it, but 51 other guys did the same thing that year, in í96,ÖAll the guys, all the guys that Iíve played with, and against, that are the top, elite guys at the major league level.
NBF: You having fun here?
Yeah, itís fun, I mean I wish we were winning more games, that makes it more fun, but itís still fun, though. We do have a good group of guys, Madlock is really good to play for, Peteís awesome, and Ashley, you know, Ashley really understands the game, Madlock does too, he played for how many years.
NBF: You have a daughter, Madeleine. How do you feel about women in professional ball? Would you be pleased if she grew up to be a ballplayer?
Yeah, I mean, honestly I really think if a man or a woman can play or do competitively comparable in any sport and you can mix them, fine. I donít really have a problem with that, at all. I mean, a lot of sports are so physical that itís justÖit isnít impossible but itís almost impossibleÖyou just wouldnít see a woman lineman but you could see a female wide receiver who could catch, I mean theyíve got the speed.
NBF: So if Madeleine gets involved and sheís good, thatíd be OK with you?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I want her to like the game, I have not forced it on her. The first three-and-a-half, four years of her life, I was like, oh, my goodness, she is not gonna like to play this at all, every single time I said, letís go hit, letís play some catch, ďNo, I donít want to,Ē but finally, one day we went out and sheís like, wow, this is fun, so then it was like every day weíre doing it and this year was her first year at t-ball and she was one of the best players. Iím a proud father, but [my wife] Cari said that in the stands one of the guys, as Madeleine was hitting, told his other little kids, wow, thatís a girl out there doing that. And the coaches put her at third base, where all the action is, because she can throw to first and stuff.
Newark Bears Fan thanks The Newark Bears Professional Baseball Club, Inc. for facilitating access to Mr. Wagner for this interview.
Reprints of this interview are available from Newark Bears Fan. Click here to request one.