Black baseball is the Matthews family business
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Nearly 50 Years of Taste-Making, Game-Changing and Keeping Color in MLB
The hot knock on baseball is that it has lost its appeal in the Black community, as evidenced by the 8.5 percent of African-American players on MLB rosters.
Gary Matthews Sr. was one of those superstars, and that supposed decline in America’s baseball mojo didn’t affect his four sons, who all wanted to play in the pros like Pops while continuing to breath life and diversity into the game
The number of African-Americans in the game was dwindling and the face of MLB clubhouses were changing by the time Gary Jr. got to The Show in 1999.
“Little Sarge” attended Granada Hills High School in California and then went on to play at Mission College in Santa Clara before being drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 13th-round of the 1993 amateur draft.
“For us it started at a young age,” recalls Gary Jr., who played 12 years in the Bigs (1999-2010) with seven different squads and was an All-Star once like his pops, in 2006. “I remember my father buying this huge coffee table book about The Negro Leagues.”
Gary, just 10 years old at the time, points to that moment as the one that brought perspective and meaning to the “family business.”
Grasping the importance of diversity in baseball and becoming a shining example of its endless possibilities started very early for The Matthews Family, who are using their baseball pedigree to influence MLB in ways that extend beyond the playing field. They're looking to help shape the future and expose youth to opportunities offered within the game.
The Matthews Brothers lived through some great times with their dad, who was a star on that 1984 Cubs team that won the NL East title and had the town in a hysteria, drunk with hopes of winning Chi-Town’s first World Series title since 1908. “Sarge” as he was reverently nicknamed, had an immense impact on the field and in the clubhouse as he lead MLB in walks and OBP and finished fifth in the NL MVP voting that season
Chicago White Sox VP and Assistant General Manager Buddy Bell and The Matthews Family are tight
Bell, who also hails from a baseball family (He is the son of outfielder Gus Bell and the father of third basemen David and Mike), broke into MLB in 1972 with the Cleveland Indians.
“From Day 1, Sarge sort of stands out just because of his passion for the game and his energy,” Bell told The Shadow League
Bell reminisced about his glory days, facing Sarge’s lethal bat and them going out to Vegas every year and playing golf while they did promotions for various sneaker companies
Decades later, The Matthews remain unaffected by the lack of diversity in the game or in the league offices
And as long as they exist and continue to expand their impressive baseball legacy, the soul infusion of baseball’s black knights will always be felt, if not respected.
The 48-year-old Reagins currently serves as MLB’s Senior VP for Youth Programs, a new role in which he oversees the league’s intensified focus on youth baseball development and participation, particularly among African-American kids
Reagins, who says the Matthews are “bonded by blood and baseball,” is also 38-year-old Delvon Matthews’ boss
“He's a bright young man and has passion for the game,” Reagins told TSL. “He understands evaluating, identifying and developing young talent and that's really important for us in terms of dealing with young African-American players who don't necessarily have the fundamental skills but have the athletic ability. Del has been a strong asset in teaching them the correct way of playing the game.”
When Matthews wasn’t on the road he was at home being daddy or at the ballpark working, with his kids never far away. They grew up around the game and often attending spring training. They served as bat boys during games when their dad played for the Atlanta Braves. While their junior high school friends were at summer camps, the Matthews boys were at Wrigley Field with Pops, running the hallways and smelling the ivy that plastered the outfield walls.
This was during an era when there were no lights or night games inside The Friendly Confines located on Chi-Town’s North Side
“Kids had more leeway in the clubhouse and on the field back then,” Gary Jr. added. “We spent countless hours learning to interact with my father’s teammates, the front office and media.”
Del fondly and vividly recalled how the boys would go out early with Sarge and hit in the cage during pre-game batting practices and the rush he got trying to imitate the pro players.
“I got exposed to a lot of different things at an early age; going to ballparks and different cities. I grew up in the baseball locker room and it really set the whole foundation for my career now.”
Del says he felt natural, at home in the park, around Pop
“But as I grew up and started hanging out at the ballpark and going to spring training and going out to dinner... “I saw the way people responded to him and asked for his autograph and I would see him on TV and realized my dad was a celebrity.”
Del says Bell was a great mentor to him during their time working together in the Chicago White Sox front office.
“I don’t know about being a mentor,” Bell cautioned. “Del was already pretty well mentored by the time I got to him. He got a lot of help from his Dad... in the way Del respects people... and he’s a brilliant kid. A great listener."
“By the time Del got to me,” Bell said, “he had a great feel about what needed to be done. I think we helped each other in a lot of different ways. He's one of my closest friends in baseball.”
Baker, the current manager for the NL East champion Washington Nationals, played 19 super solid season in MLB from 1968 to 1986 and then began an illustrious managerial career that has spanned two decades and garnered him more wins than any African-American skipper in baseball history
“Del and my daughter grew up together as kids,” said Baker from his D.C. office, as his Nats prepared to host the Miami Marlins in the aftermath of the Jose Fernandez tragedy. “Sarge is one of my best friends.”
Gary Matthews Sr., grew up in San Fernando Valley playing sandlot baseball and was the No. 17 pick of the 1968 MLB draft by the San Francisco Giants at the tender age of 18.
He would continue to excel as an elite batsman in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“I had a great career. I was always a three-hole hitter; the guy they counted on to get the big hit and drive in key runs... and I was always ready to play,” Sarge said.
As a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, he shined in the 1981 and ‘83 playoffs, hitting seven homers in 19 playoff games and winning the 1983 NLCS MVP.
Matthews’ third homer of that NLCS, a three-run blast, gave the Phillies a 3-0 first-inning lead in a Game 4 elimination of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
After hanging his cleats up, Sarge says that he worked in the private sector and as a broadcaster and then joined the Cubs as a minor league hitting instructor from 1995-98.
“I was told I needed to get some experience before I could lead a team,” Sarge told TSL.
In between, Matthews also found time to work as a Blue Jays studio analyst and returned to coaching from 2002-06 with the Brewers and Cubs.
When his managerial dream didn’t materialize, says Sarge, he went on to serve as a color analyst for the Philadelphia Phillies from 2007 to 2013, with little regret.
It’s odd that a guy that was nicknamed Sarge because of his ability to lead and inspire those around him -- all of the defining characteristics we look for in an MLB manager -- wasn’t ever given a serious interview for a head coaching job.
From 2007 until early this year, he worked under Williams as the team’s assistant director of player development
Del ran the team’s minor league camp and helped evaluate talent. Matthews also previously worked as the director of baseball operations for the Arizona Fall League.
As MLB big wigs realize that player diversity is the future and lifeline of pro sports, the commissioner’s office has made the expansion of baseball’s youth initiatives a top priority.
“Unlike a lot of people who hold these front office positions, Del actually played the game,” Baker said, stressing every syllable for emphasis. “He grew up in the game. He knows the difficulties, trials and tribulations in baseball. He has the integrity, the honesty and he’s young.’
In his new role, Matthews has a shot to really impact the “type” of player MLB is looking for and make opportunities in baseball more accessible to athletes of color, by providing them high-profile events and exposure to pro coaching and scouting
“It was always in our blood,” Del said. “Growing up in a household with four boys, competition was always high and that competitive edge can definitely be attributed to my father. The discipline, work ethic and desire was born from all of that and it ultimately led to my brother going pro and me becoming a professional.”
Gary Jr. says it was a rough time for everyone when Del decided to hang up his cleats
“It almost felt like a piece of me had walked away from the game, “said Gary Jr., “but it takes a lot for an athlete to accept when it’s time to do something else.”
“My brother took some time to mourn the loss of himself as a player and he went back and developed his own niche within our family business,” said Gary Jr. “He’s growing into a talented future general manager and well on his way to taking our family into places we've never been.”
Del was honest with himself and quickly moved on to his next mission in life
Del says coming to the commissioner’s office and doing the work he does now with the Breakthrough Series events and Elite Development Invitational doesn’t feel like a job at all
“It’s just my life coming full circle,” Del said. “Giving back through baseball and helping to identify talent and shape the game.”
Uncle Dusty couldn’t be prouder. Del was in his office, sitting next to Baker after a recent win over the Arizona Diamondbacks when during a recent phone interview, Baker spoke of the impact a kid who has been like a nephew to him is making on the game
When Gary Jr. retired, he had ideas of investing his small MLB fortune and venturing into real estate. Today, he’s part of a successful team that invests in small hotels and residential properties
Like baseball, it’s a trade that a family member passed down to him at an early age. His grandfather owned a set of strip malls and was successful in buying properties and assessing land value and he hipped Gary Jr. to the business
It’s in their DNA
“All kids should get an opportunity to play the game,” Sarge says. “ Not just black kids. That’s what baseball should be about.”
The Matthews Family’s approach to the diamond, and life, was molded by an incomparable baseball lineage
“The legacy will live on especially through Del who has young boys who also love the game,” Reagins insisted
“So that connectivity through generations is really what we need... to pass down the game and preserve it, which is something that used to happen but does not happen as much now. I think the Matthews family is an example of passing the game down through generations which contributes to the long term health of baseball.”
“Del and I talked about that a lot," said Bell, reflecting on his own experiences growing up in a professional baseball factory of a family. "We are close to our Dads but never put them on a pedestal. The things Sarge taught him about life was much more important than anything he taught him in the field. People get the impression that you sit around the dinner table all day and talk baseball, but that's not real."
The reality of life and baseball for the Matthews Family Business goes back to those legendary Negro League players from the huge coffee table book.
“When I think about what Jackie Robinson did for the game and society,” Gary Jr. said,”I hope that when he looked at what the game was going to be like in the future, that he looked at a family like mine... I would hope that 70 years after he graced the sport and changed society forever, he would be proud looking at the impact my family continues to make... Whatever small place we hold in this game.”
These days, Gary Sr. often visits his son Gary in Corona del Mar, at a beautiful home Junior purchased when he signed a $50 million deal with the Anaheim Angels in 2007. Speaking about the house conjures one of Gary Jr.’s fondest images of his dad
“It’s always good to look out at my Dad sitting back with a wine glass in his hand, smoking on a cigar overlooking the beach,” said Gary Jr
“He always told me if I listened and worked hard and did what he told me, we’d be in this position one day,” Gary Jr. recalls. “He didn’t lie.”
The fulfilling image of his dad overlooking the new kingdom is life coming full circle. Now it’s Sarge’s turn to chill and immerse himself in the accomplishments of his sons, who are all dedicated to keeping baseball colorful, charismatic with culture and shaping the game in some way
This post was originally published on The Shadow League.