July 26, 2014

The Mirror Seaver

April 2, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

I can still see Jon Matlack, his left leg straight as a pole, his right knee up by his neck, then the long stride towards home. Fastballs and curves, exquisite control. He was the number three man in the starting rotation of the Mets from 1972-77. Tough to get any higher than that, with Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman ahead of you. On most teams he would have been the ace. Matlack was phenomenal, winning Rookie of the Year in 1972, helping the Metsies stretch the much-better A’s to Game Seven in the 1973 World Series. A three-time All Star by 1976, including a co-MVP win in the 1975 Midsummer Classic with his homonym, Bill Madlock. He also had the best middle name of the ‘70’s: Trumpbour. (Sorry, Wilver Dornel Stargell).

While researching a still unpublished book on the 1981 baseball strike, I gave Matlack a call in November of 2008. He lives somewhere north of Cooperstown, in Johnsburg, NY. Though he wasn’t home when I rang, he didn’t leave me hanging like one of his stellar curve balls. One of the coolest things about the writing process is coming home and hearing Jon Matlack’s voice on the answering machine. I pictured his face as we spoke for nearly an hour. He looked a lot like Fred Gwynne; I could never get that out of my mind.

Though Matlack made the big club for keeps in 1972, his future was held in check. After a Mets-Yankees faceoff in Florida, the first players’ strike began. Union leader Marvin Miller had visited the Mets camp and shed light on the strife-filled situation between owners and players. Miller always presented a balanced report of pros and cons, recalled Matlack. Acting as any newbie would, young Matlack followed the recommendation of the veterans and voted to strike. Once the walkout was set, the soon-to-be-rookie returned to his parents’ home in Pennsylvania to wait it out.

The ’72 season began late, but that didn’t hurt the West Chester native. It was after that 15-win kickoff season that I met Matlack at Lake Grove, Long Island’s Smithhaven Mall. A group of Mets were signing autographs, or handing out facsimiles. Since there weren’t many times that I’d be talking to Jon Matlack, I had to mention that. What do you know; he remembered it too, although for a very different reason.  A teenage girl asked the new star in town if he would “sign [her] Tweety.”

It felt like a risqué request and just about knocked Jon off his chair. When she started to take off her coat, he got even more uncomfortable. It all ended up innocently enough when she exhibited the Looney Tune character embroidered on the back of her denim jacket.  Sitting next to fellow pitcher Jim McAndrew, Matlack laughed, greatly relieved.

Of all his teammates, Tom Seaver was the man he admired most. I always thought of Matlack as Seaver’s southpaw other. He carried himself with similar dignity, and went about his work with a great seriousness of purpose. Seaver had gotten involved in union affairs early, approaching labor relations with the same dedication to do it right that he brought to the mound.

“I’m doing it so it’s not slipshod,” the ace of the staff told the young lefty. It was the beginning of a close relationship between the best pitcher in baseball and his protégé. When Tom Terrific took over as player rep, Matlack eagerly became his assistant. They talked often during 1973 and 1974 and Matlack eventually took over the lead role.

During the Mets purge of ’77, when Seaver, Dave Kingman and others high priced stars were cast out of Shea Stadium, Matlack managed to survive, but only until season’s end. In December he was sent to Texas and, in his first year in the American League, did fantastically well, placing second to Ron Guidry with a 2.27 ERA. Off-field, Matlack did Seaver proud by actively seeking the player rep role.

By 1981, when it became clear that a major rift was coming that would ultimately tear the season in two, Matlack was a 10-year veteran, part of the players negotiating committee and a member of the eight-man executive board. With Miller’s informed, thoughtful explanations, it wasn’t hard to get the Rangers’ unanimous vote to strike. The players felt Marvin and the union knew what was best for them.

Matlack was inactive during the strike, ceasing all baseball related activity. He got some heat for it from Rangers fans for his refusal to work out. He shrugged off the letters he received, from “people not understanding” the situation. Matlack stayed in shape by taking care of horses kept at his Ft. Worth property. He was available to those who really needed him, and his teammates needed him for information. Communication was strong—a network of callers, like moms on a snow day, got word out quickly.

For a brief period during the talks, Miller left the table, to demonstrate that, despite owners claims, the players were not dangling from Marvin-controlled strings. Without Miller at the table, the players were more outspoken, stronger. These were, after all, competitive men by occupation.

Matlack had nothing but scorn for Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. It was Kuhn who was

“nothing but a puppet for owners.” As to the lead man for the owners, ex-General Electric negotiator Ray Grebey, Matlack had nothing complimentary to say. The sarcastic Grebey was an “irritating kind of guy” with a penchant for “gut-wrenching terrible smelling green cigars.” Grebey took great pleasure in lighting up during bargaining sessions. This did not sit well with Mr. Matlack.

Deep in the heart of Texas, the Northeastern Matlack had settled comfortably into “cowboy mode.” As a Ranger, he sported blue jeans, boots, and hat. Whenever Grebey would light up an offending cheroot, Matlack would dip into his tin of Copenhagen.  Further pushing his newfound coarseness, Matlack used china coffee cups for his spittoon.

As the strike wore on, Texas owner Eddie Chiles became a voice of reason, chiding Kuhn, Grebey and the owners for the suicide mission they’d embarked on in pushing the players to walk. The press ate up Chiles’ rebellious words and saw him as one of the few beacons of sanity on the corporate side. That’s not the Eddie Chiles Matlack knew.

Early in the season, when it was clear that a strike was coming, Jon felt it was fitting to visit the team owner and preemptively clear the air. They met in Chiles’ office.

Matlack put it straight. “I’ll say things you won’t like, but it’s not personal about you or the Rangers.”

Chiles responded that he respected his pitcher for saying that. “Do what you have to do,” he answered pleasantly, but, it would turn out, falsely. Years later, another person at that meeting, who Matlack wouldn’t name, told Jon that Chiles went on a rampage as soon as his star pitcher exited.

“I’ll get that SOB,” Chiles raged. And, in Matlack’s estimation, he did. There’s a history of player reps getting traded by management that reacted punitively to their legitimate efforts on behalf of the players.

In retrospect, Matlack believes his demotion to the bullpen the following year may have been punishment. But the worst was to come. In Boston, Matlack pitched very well for 5 1/3 innings. He expected rest, but two days later pitching coach Jackie Brown told him that, with starter Rick Honeycutt hurt, Jon was going to start against the Twins. With Texas ahead 2-0, Matlack was shocked that no one had come to the mound asking how he felt. Finally, Brownie came out after seven innings.

“I don’t care if they fire me,” said the coach angrily. “I’m taking you out.”

Player memories are notoriously fickle. There’s no doubt about the outing against Minnesota, which occurred on September 8, 1982, three days after a Matlack threw 2 2/3 innings against the White Sox (wrong Sox). There’s also no doubt that by the end of 1982, Jon Matlack was hurting.

After a dismal 1983 season plagued by injury, followed by a Halloween release, Matlack looked to latch on to another team, any franchise that would be willing to give it a go. He was only 33 and, though he still had two years left on his Rangers contract, would’ve been happy to sign for the minimum salary. Chiles’ vindictiveness scotched that, as the Rangers leaked, and exaggerated, Matlack’s health problems. That was the end of the road.

Looking back on the evolution of baseball into the economic force it is today, Matlack pondered how his labor work had affected the game.  As roving pitching instructor for the Tigers, he was chagrined that today’s players expect to be promoted after only one year in the minors. These days, getting to the big leagues is like “winning the lottery,” the result of Marvin Miller’s efforts. The major leaguers of today need to appreciate the struggles of the past and it should be “mandatory to read Marvin’s book.”

Over time, the general public views baseball history as the province of its superstars, the Hall of Famers. We know better. We know how important it is to remember the hard work of players like Jon Matlack, who not only achieved excellence on the field, but also threw themselves into the mix, fighting for their rights as workers, sometimes at great sacrifice to their own careers.

Born in Brooklyn, Jeff Katz now writes about music, baseball and whatever else he’s obsessing on from his new home base in Cooperstown, New York. His story about Sandy Koufax was included in the anthology Play It Again, and his latest book, The Kansas City A’s & The Wrong Half of the Yankees was published in 2007. Jeff’s “what if” history of rock and roll, Maybe Baby (or, You Know That It Would Be Untrue), has garnered worldwide readership, with a new story posted on backbeat Fridays (the 2nd and 4th of every month).

Comments

One Response to “The Mirror Seaver”
  1. An excellent piece and true in every respect. Matlack would come into the Stamford CT Y when I was in college with Skip Lockwood. This was exactly his personality.

    Would probably be making bazillions today.

    Tony De Angelo
    Pomfret, CT

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