Royals broadcaster Matthews laments ‘big gap’ ahead
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.”
Denny Matthews is ready for season No. 52 with the Royals.