day 36: sarge

Today is 36 days, which is one day and five weeks of the omer: hesed she’b’yesod.

Thus begins the week of yesod, which means we’re going to be talking about tzaddikim, the righteous ones. Let’s see where it takes us.

If the picks for Days 27, 30, and 35 had to deal with Oakland’s Charlie O, left fielder Gary Matthews was victim to Atlanta’s Ted Turner. The difference was that Finley helped the As find success, while the Atlanta club definitely did better when Turner was hands off.

Turner received a one-year suspension (though he successfully appealed) for openly flouting league rules when he signed Matthews as a free agent in 1976. The next year, after Atlanta’s 16-game losing streak, Turner stepped in to manage the team for one game before he was kicked out of the clubhouse by the NL president. Turner tried to appeal that decision, too, but this time was unsuccessful. Turner then began to pull back more and more until Atlanta won the WS in 1995. But Matthews was long gone by then, having moved on to the Phillies, then the Cubs — where long after his best years as a player, Matthews would have his own brush with coaching ineptitude when, as sportswriter Al Yellon put it, he “was brought in to rid Cubs players of any hitting knowledge they possessed.”

Matthews got his nickname from another colorful character in the baseball pantheon, one Pete Rose. It was during the 1983 postseason, when the Phillies were facing the Dodgers in the NLCS: Matthews got on a hot streak, and in four games he batted .429, hit three home runs, drove in eight runs, and was named the series MVP. Rose pronounced him “Sarge,” telling Matthews, “Any time a future Hall of Famer gives you a nickname, it sticks.” Well, Rose was right about part of that sentence. (Interestingly, Yellon reports an alternate source of the nickname: It “came from his habit, developed early in the ’84 season, of saluting the legions of LF bleacher fans who would cheer his every appearance in the outfield.”)

Matthews endeared himself to a generation of Cubs fans as a key member of that 1984 club, which won the NL East division title and made its first postseason appearance since 1945 (though losing the NLCS to the Padres 3-2). In that league championship series, he only batted .200, but his three hits included two home runs, and he scored four runs in the five games and had five RBI, and he walked six times (against four strikeouts). He was second on the team in on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

Delvon Matthews, Gary Matthews, Jr., and Daniel Cey (Cubs players’ sons), 1985

His career began with the Giants and being named Rookie of the Year in 1973, and one of his legacies is having made baseball the family business, starting with making sure the kids were at the ballpark with him as much as possible. Gary Matthews Jr. played 12 years in the majors and was an All Star once, in 2006. The two combined for 342 career home runs, the 10th most by a father and son duo. (At the top of that list are Barry Bonds and his father Bobby, at 1,094. Hilariously, Yogi Berra and his son are #7, with 407 HRs, Dale having contributed a whole 49 to that count.)

In 2016, Delvon Matthews was named MLB’s senior director of baseball development, responsible for overseeing the daily operations of MLB’s Urban Youth Academies* and implementing initiatives designed to expand and diversify the game’s reach. As I noted early in this project, today baseball is only 8% black, down from its heyday in the 70s and 80s of 25-30%. (Scoop Jackson has a chapter in his recent book, The Game is Not a Game, entitled #baseballsowhite.) Inspired by his father, Matthews fils is in a position to help change that.

Matthews père considers Jackie Robinson part of his heritage: Robinson mentored Willie Mays, and Mays mentored Matthews, who wanted to coach after his playing career but came to believe that there was a reluctance on the part of MLB to give black players a chance at leadership positions. Matthews told The Undefeated in 2016, “As a player, people always said I had the leadership and intellectual qualities of a manager, so I developed aspirations of becoming one. I got the experience everyone said I needed, but when it comes down to the actuality … it just didn’t happen for whatever reason.”

For the righteous goal of making baseball better than it is and teaching his sons a love of the game, let’s count Day 36, righteousness that manifests as love, in honor of Matthews.

*MLB’s Urban Youth Academies may well be very worthy causes, but the name sounds pretty patronizing, and all I can think about is this.



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