Roy­als broad­caster Matthews laments ‘big gap’ ahead

The Kansas City Star - - Sports - BY VAHE GRE­GO­RIAN vgre­go­rian@kc­

When the last orig­i­nal em­ployee of the Roy­als pon­ders why he still loves his work en­ter­ing Sea­son 52 on the job — de­layed as this sea­son might be — Denny Matthews trans­ports us back to where this all started.

To Bloom­ing­ton, Illi­nois, where his fa­ther taught him to play in­field and bat left-handed so he could use his speed to take ad­van­tage of be­ing closer to first base.

To an­other place in time and a hint of the fu­ture, when on sum­mer days he would lie in front of their “big ra­dio” (typ­i­cally play­ing Car­di­nals games on WJBC 1230 AM) and spread out his base­ball cards in the same or­der as the line­ups with pitch­ers off to the side … and an­nounce.

All these years later, 77 years old now, he still cher­ishes that his abid­ing love for the game was paved by his fa­ther, Ge­orge, a base­ball and bas­ket­ball star at Illi­nois State who is in the ISU Ath­let­ics Hall of Fame.

And per­haps now more than ever, he still pays heed to some sus­tain­ing wis­dom that came with it.

“‘Life is noth­ing more than a se­ries of ad­just­ments,’” he said Wed­nes­day. “And, of course, I didn’t un­der­stand what the heck he was talk­ing about at that time. But through the years, I kind of fig­ured it out and he was dead-on it. You have to ad­just.

“Life throws slid­ers and curve­balls and change­ups at you all the time. And if you make good de­ci­sions and good ad­just­ments, why, you should get through it OK.”

Which brings us to the knee-buck­ling brush­back that’s come our way the last few weeks: the COVID-19 coro­n­avirus pandemic that has brought life as we know it to a halt in so many ways.

A new phase of that be­gan Thurs­day, the sched­uled open­ing day for the Roy­als in Chicago.

With no “play ball” call, we’ll be feel­ing a dif­fer­ent tier of with­drawal ab­sent an­other of our as­sumed rites of spring (and sum­mer and fall) and a sound­point track of our lives.

“It’s go­ing to be … a big hole, a big gap there,” Matthews said. “And you just think, boy, oh boy, what’s the end game? Where are we go­ing to go with this?

“And when can I fi­nally sit down and say, ‘Thanks, Ryan (Le­feb­vre), thanks (Steve Phys­ioc), who­ever it is. And here we go.’ And let’s get the sea­son go­ing.

“It’s go­ing to be strange; it’s go­ing to be dif­fer­ent.”

In a sense, it’s not un­prece­dented.

In his ten­ure, base­ball has had strikes and lock­outs that led to can­cel­la­tions of reg­u­lar-sea­son games in 1972, 1981, 1994 and 1995 … with the en­tire post­sea­son called off in 1994.

And base­ball closed down for a week in the wake of the at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But this par­tic­u­lar mis­ery is com­pounded by the vague­ness of the time frame amid a fright­en­ing scene for many.

“When is open­ing day?” said Matthews, who like us all won­ders what the sched­ule will ul­ti­mately look like and what sort of train­ing time (or place) might be re­quired to re­set.

Open­ing day might mean some­thing dif­fer­ent to ev­ery­one … and per­haps some­thing sim­i­lar to ev­ery­body.

To Matthews, it beck­ons him to April 8, 1969.

In their in­au­gu­ral game at Mu­nic­i­pal Sta­dium, the Roy­als beat the Twins 4-3 in 12 in­nings as the 25year-old Matthews made his ma­jor league de­but at the side of men­tor Buddy Blat­tner.

Matthews, who played foot­ball and base­ball at Illi­nois Wes­leyan, re­called his emo­tions that day be­ing more akin to what he’d felt play­ing foot­ball than base­ball.

“Be­cause you’re a lit­tle more revved up, be­cause you’re a lit­tle more emo­tional (and) ex­cited,” he said. “The but­ter­flies are ev­ery­where.”

He might have the but­ter­flies in check by now, but …

“Open­ing day is al­ways a day of re­newal and hope,” he said. “And you’re un­de­feated at that in time. Ev­ery­body’s go­ing to have a good year. And it’s just a great day.”

This time around had (has?) ex­tra el­e­ments of re­vi­tal­iza­tion un­der new owner John Sher­man and man­ager Mike Ma­theny. Matthews ex­pects both will be ter­rific.

While he has spent only brief time with Sher­man so far, with each ex­press­ing how much they look for­ward to talk­ing more, he has had more en­gage­ment with Ma­theny.

Last fall, around the time Ma­theny was about to be­come man­ager af­ter a year as a spe­cial ad­vi­sor, Matthews got a text from him telling him how much he’d en­joyed hear­ing his work and learn­ing about Roy­als’ his­tory as Ma­theny had roamed the mi­nor leagues.

In fact, he re­called that Ma­theny called him a cross be­tween Ernie Har­well and Vin Scully, Base­ball Hall of Famers who are among the best-known in the his­tory of their pro­fes­sion.

“Come on, now,” said Matthews, who as the Ford C. Frick Award win­ner in 2007 is among them in the Hall of Fame.

In ad­di­tion to ob­serv­ing Ma­theny to be a classy man who must have got­ten a bad rap in St. Louis, he noted how Ma­theny seemed to be con­nect­ing with play­ers in Sur­prise through some of the same meth­ods he’d seen in Whitey Her­zog.

Like Her­zog would do dur­ing bat­ting prac­tice and spring train­ing, Ma­theny wan­dered all over the fields and might stand and talk to any given player for five or so min­utes to at least sub­con­sciously cre­ate a “we’re all in this to­gether” men­tal­ity.

“Whitey was so good at com­mu­ni­cat­ing with his play­ers that he could make the 23rd, 24th, 25th guy on the team feel like they were in the start­ing lineup ev­ery night … ,” Matthews said. “I think Mike has some of those same char­ac­ter­is­tics. …

“I think it’s go­ing to serve him very well. I would be shocked to my core if he doesn’t do a good job. I would be stunned.”

Now it’s just a mat­ter of when these jobs get re­sumed.

Un­til then, Matthews has plenty to do.

He might catch up on some books and mag­a­zines. He prob­a­bly will check out old episodes of “Bos­ton Le­gal” and “North­ern Ex­po­sure,” hav­ing re­cently bought sea­sons worth of those DVDs

And the man who still plays ice hockey ev­ery win­ter (“no­body ever ac­cused me of be­ing very smart,” he said, “but it is great ex­er­cise”) doubt­less will watch some of the dozens of hockey games he had recorded while never ex­pect­ing to see most of them.

For that mat­ter, he has a lot of dif­fer­ent in­ter­ests and can al­ways find ways to amuse him­self.

Plus, he’s known this ever since his fa­ther taught it to him all those years ago.

“We’ll get through it. Hang in there. You’ve got to be tough,” he said. “You’ve got to ad­just. Don’t for­get that.”

Star file photo

Denny Matthews is ready for sea­son No. 52 with the Roy­als.

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