A couple of left-handed pitchers on the Jamestown Tigers travel baseball team received some instruction on Wednesday from another left-hander. The youngsters might not have realized it, but they were learning from the 1972 National League rookie of the year.
Their instruction came from Jon Matlack, who pitched 13 seasons in the majors, the first seven with the New York Mets and the last six with the Texas Rangers.
Matlack is the director of baseball programs for Secrets of Champions, who were putting on a youth camp sponsored by the Jamestown Tigers at the Martin Road Complex.
Former New York Mets and Texas Rangers pitcher Jon Matlack watches some players in action at a youth camp at the Martin Road Complex on Wednesday.
P-J photo by Jim Riggs
Matlack was not much older than some of the players he was working with when he was drafted by the Mets in 1967. The previous season, the Mets, in their fifth season of existence, were 66-95 and finished ninth in the 10-team National League. And when he was drafted, the team was headed for a 61-101 record and a last-place finish. So how did he feel to be drafted by that team?
''I was tickled to death to be drafted No. 1 and where it was didn't matter,'' Matlack recalled. ''The fact that I was drafted in the first round and fourth overall, I was ecstatic.''
Did he ever think that being drafted by a struggling expansion team might mean a better opportunity to reach the major leagues?
''I never really gave that a thought,'' he said. ''It was all about being involved as a pro and the competition. I knew I was young, had a long way to go and a lot to learn, and it was just matter of getting started and seeing where it took me.''
Where it took him within four years was to the majors for a brief stint and then to stay in his fifth year of professional baseball.
''I never really had a time frame,'' Matlack said. ''I was all about learning the game and trying to become as good I could be. I felt if I spent time doing that the rest of it should fall into place, and thank goodness it did.''
His first trip to spring training with the Mets found him among a group of pitchers that included Don Cardwell, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Tug McGraw, Gary Gentry and Jerry Koosman. How did Matlack react?
''Totally nonplussed,'' he said. ''I think I pitched two innings that spring and got absolutely pummeled and got sent back to the minor leagues and was glad to be there.''
He was part of a special farm system and that is why Matlack was not surprised when the Mets won the 1969 World Series.
''The whole system had quality players in it,'' he said. ''I believe every team in their (minor league) system won in 1969. I don't know if it's ever been done since.''
He added, ''Maybe people called them the Amazings, but they won with pitching and defense which is what the club was built around. The organization was built around pitching and defense and it carried through the organization. Having been there for two years, I knew the talent was in the organization. It was just a matter of having it mature and getting to the top where it belonged.''
Matlack was one of those talented young pitchers in the minor leagues.
''It was a little scary because there was so much of it, you wondered where you were going to fit,'' he said.
Matlack fit just fine and had reached Triple A in 1971 when he was called up to the Mets in July to fill in for Koosman, who suffered a rib injury. His first major-league start was in the second game of a doubleheader at Cincinnati. And what did it feel like to make his first appearance in the major leagues?
''Very scary,'' he said. ''It actually went very well.''
When he left the game for a pinch hitter, the Mets were trailing, 2-1, but then they scored two runs.
''I'm in the clubhouse ahead 3-2,'' Matlack said. ''It was close to the all-star break, so they used Seaver out of the bullpen. I'm thinking I've got Seaver for a caddy in my start, we've got a win. I'm all set.''
But the Reds bounced back to win.
''He blew the save and got the loss and I got a no-decision,'' Matlack said.
He ended up appearing in seven games, started six and had an 0-3 record before being sent back to Triple A when Koosman returned.
Matlack went to spring training in 1972 feeling confident, but also practical.
''I had a very good spring, but I was still young and they still had a lot of good talent,'' he said.
On cut-down day, Matlack went in the locker room to check out the stalls that still had jerseys in them, signifying those players had made the 25-man roster. The last one he checked was his and he recalled saying, ''There's 25 and I'm still one of them.''
And he had an audience.
''What I didn't know was (manager) Gil Hodges had walked through the door and was standing behind me, watching me do it,'' Matlack said. ''When I gave a little fistpump for myself, he patted me on the back and said, ''That's right, kid, you made it.''
Then Matlack added, ''It wasn't 10 days later he died of a heart attack on the golf course.''
Matlack spent only a brief time with Hodges as his manager, but he was impressed.
''He was tremendous individual,'' he said. ''He had an ominous presence, but at the same time you were comfortable going to talk to him if you needed to.''
And things were comfortable with his replacement, Yogi Berra.
''Yogi was absolutely great,'' Matlack said. ''He'd give you bats and the balls and say, 'Here, go play.' He was very easy to play for.''
And play was something easy for Matlack, who finished the 1972 season with a 15-10 record and a 2.32 ERA and was the named the NL Rookie of the Year.
''I was just another rookie player trying to do the best he could,'' he said. ''I had no idea there was such a thing as a rookie of the year. I was clueless.''
So as a rookie he had held his own with a starting rotation that included, Seaver, Gentry and Jim McAndrew.
''That's the way it's supposed to be, isn't it?'' he said with laugh.
Also in 1972, Matlack became the answer to a trivia question when he surrendered Roberto Clemente's 3,000th, and final, hit of his career. On New Year's Eve, the Pittsburgh Pirates' Hall of Famer was killed in a plane crash.
In 1973, the Mets outlasted the Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals to win the ''National League Least'' on the day after the regular season ended.
''We had a good group of guys that sort of learned to ham-and-egg it together over the course of the season,'' he said. ''During that season everyone in our division took their turn at first (place). We took ours at the end where it counted with a minimal record, 82-79.''
The Mets went on to win the National League Championship Series against the Cincinnati Reds and then lost to the Oakland A's in the World Series. About the World Series, Matlack said, ''That's like being in a dream.''
He had a 1-2 record in the World Series, but was 1-0 in the NLCS and that win popped up when asked about his most memorable game.
''Probably the biggest one for me was the playoff win against Cincinnati,'' Matlack said. ''I pitched a two-hit shutout after Seaver got beat, 2-1, in the first game. That sort of righted our ship in the playoffs and let us go forward. We won the next two. That got us where we intended to go, which was the (World) Series.''
Matlack never got back to the World Series, but was on the NL All-Star team in 1974, 1975 and 1976 and was the co-most valuable player of the 1975 game.
After the Mets finished last in the Eastern Division in 1977, Matlock was part of a four-team trade that sent him to the Texas Rangers.
''Night and day,'' was the way Matlack described going from the Mets to the Rangers. ''Different league, different climate, different fans. Totally different ends of the spectrum.''
He added, ''The competition I think might have been a hair tougher because of the DH and also because you didn't get pinch-hit for so you pitched deeper in the ballgame. Combine that with it was always 100-plus in Arlington (Texas). Over the course of the year that took it's toll and that's maybe one of the reasons, at least early on, why that club never produced simply because no could figure out how to deal with that heat all year.''
In his first season, 1978, he was 15-13 and remained with the Rangers through 1983.
After four years away from baseball, he returned as a coach in the San Diego Padres, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Houston Astros organizations.
Now Matlack's coaching involves youngsters at the Secrets of Champions camps.
''I love teaching,'' he said as kept a keen eye on a left-handed pitcher.
And the temperature on Wednesday had to bring back memories of pitching for the Rangers.