By IAN WILSON
He was the guy you wanted at the plate with the game on the line in the late innings.
It didn’t matter if it was spring training or the playoffs.
He was coming in cold, but the ice in his veins helped him maintain a cool demeanor in pressure-packed situations.
Canadian Matt Stairs was the quintessential pinch hitter. He has a World Series ring that was earned, in part, from his postseason heroics for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008. The Fredericton, New Brunswick product is also in the record books for his 23 regular season, pinch-hit home runs.
The veteran of 1,895 games over 19 Major League Baseball (MLB) seasons with 13 different clubs was in Edmonton recently as a special guest of the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL). Stairs took part in WCBL All Star Game festivities, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before the July 7th game at RE/MAX Field, signing autographs, and advising participants in the league’s home run derby.
Alberta Dugout Stories caught up with the feared slugger and picked his brain on pinch hitting, the WCBL, and his plans moving forward. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: How did you end up in Edmonton as an honoured guest of the WCBL?
A: It’s actually been a busy summer. Alomar Sports got a hold of me and asked if I’d do some appearances this year in Canada. This is my first summer off in 30 years from pro ball.
I ended up going to Regina and doing a big banquet and dinner, then I went to Weyburn and did a dinner, then they asked me if I’d continue on to Edmonton and I said, “Absolutely.” The last time I was here was in 1996, so it’s always nice to give back to Canada to the areas where they helped you out when you played, so it was fun and I’ve been doing quite a few things at these three cities – and then Toronto twice – so it’s been a nice summer.
Q: You played 51 games for the Edmonton Trappers of the Pacific Coast League in 1996, hitting eight home runs, recording 41 runs batted in and batting .344. By that point of your career you had played with the Montreal Expos, Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics. What was going on at that stage of your baseball life?
A: Honestly, it was the turning point of my career and I’m not just saying that.
So, I made the team out of spring training – the Oakland A’s – because (Mark) McGwire was hurt. When he came back, I got sent up to Edmonton and I struggled real bad. I really struggled when I got here. I didn’t get a lot of at bats down in Oakland, so when I got here I was cold … couldn’t hit a lick and it was frustrating.
I went to Tucson and had a series in Tucson and I revamped my stance completely. It used to be closed and I opened it up … I went to an open stance and it was really hot in Arizona and I wasn’t feeling real well and I was having a hard time seeing the ball with a closed stance and I opened up and next thing you know I end up hitting two grand slams and four home runs and went 9-for-11 in the series.
It kicked off from there, so coming down here was nice because I got to work on things. I got to work on a complete re-structure of my swing.
Q: Was there just less pressure to perform at the Triple-A level than in the major leagues?
A: I wouldn’t say that, because back when I was playing here, if you didn’t succeed in the minor leagues you were being sent down and you were going down to Double-A.
For me, it was a thing where I knew I had a little bit of time, because I knew I would be back in the big leagues because I was part of their theory for what they liked for on-base percentage. I just made the adjustment and it ended up working here, and obviously I got the great confidence and confidence goes a long way in hitting. I never went back to the minor leagues since then.
Q; How does one master the art of pinch hitting?
A: You know, I talk to a lot of kids and I talked to some players today about it and you have to accept your job. And what I mean by that is, you can’t be bitter that you’re not playing. I didn’t want to play every day. I was at the point of my career where I knew I had three years of over 500 at bats and I wasn’t going to get there again, so why am I going to sit around and complain? Nobody cares. Nobody is going to listen to you, know what I mean? They’ll play a small violin for you.
So, I said, “I accept my job, I accept my role of being a platoon player, pinch hitter.” I wanted to face the best closers in baseball. And I wanted to become the best pinch hitter in baseball. Hit wise, no. Lenny Harris is the all-time hit leader with 200-some base hits, which is incredible. But I knew with the power I had and my approach, I could be a game changer and that was how I accepted it and stayed focused. It’s a lot easier to do a scouting report on one pitcher than it is on nine guys.
Q: What were the major challenges of preparing for your role as a pinch hitter?
A: You know what it is? I tell people this and they look at me like they can’t believe it: I never expected to get a hit when I pinch hit, because I knew it was the hardest thing in baseball. When you think you need to get a hit in that batter’s box, you start expanding that strike zone, you start swinging at bad pitches.
I figured that if I stayed with my game plan – which I did the majority of my career, I stayed with a very stubborn approach of sitting on my pitch and waiting for him to make a mistake. Surprisingly, a lot of pitchers that you faced were worried about making a mistake to me. Instead of having the confidence of using their best stuff, they got away from their best stuff and I took advantage of mistakes and it helped because I was very stubborn and I didn’t expand my strike zone.
The key is there’s only one thing you control when you hit and that’s your approach, that’s the only thing you can control. You can’t control getting a hit, but if you stay with your approach and continue staying with your approach good things will happen. I wanted to swing at my pitch and that’s how it worked out.
Q: In the 8th inning of Game 4 of the 2008 National League Championship Series (NLCS) against the Los Angeles Dodgers, you hit a game-winning, pinch-hit home run off of Jonathan Broxton that helped pave the way to a Philadelphia Phillies World Series title. Is it safe to say that was the pinnacle of your career?
A: Yeah, I think so because of the stage. It wasn’t even considered part of the pinch-hit record. It was in the playoffs, so it didn’t count towards the record.
Q: Do you ever have to buy another beer in Philadelphia?
A: No, and I’m going there in a couple weeks for eight days for their alumni celebration.
That home run changed the momentum so much. (Shane) Victorino hit a home run to tie it. They brought in Broxton. It was … I can’t explain it, unless you’re a ball player. You step into the batter’s box and you don’t hear a word. You don’t hear a thing, you don’t hear the crowd booing you or cussing you out. You don’t hear Broxton’s music. You’re in a good spot. And then you hit the home run and you just float around the bases and team wise it was probably one of the biggest home runs in Philly history. For me, individually wise, it was great. I loved it. And I think we made so much of it because I was a pinch hitter. And if I was playing and it was my fourth at bat of the night people wouldn’t have made such a big deal out of it, but I think being a pinch hitter and Broxton had only giving up one home run that year against lefthanders … I’ve had some pretty good nights in Philadelphia since then.
Setting the all-time, pinch-hit home run record was a great honour and that home run for Philly was perfect, as well.
Q: Your nephew, Brodie Stairs, played for the Weyburn Beavers last year. What are your impressions of the WCBL?
A: I’m just starting to learn about it. Maybe I might get involved in the future with it. I like it because it gives kids another opportunity to play. There’s always scouts watching. There’s always people watching, keeping an eye on you.
I see some flaws in a lot of swings, with that new era swing, which causes a lot of strikeouts, which we see throughout baseball in the major leagues and minor leagues.
But I like it. I like the fact that the fans are supporting it and the cities do a tremendous job of supporting the teams and everyone I’ve met has been unbelievable. I enjoy it and it’s good for Canada and it’s nice seeing the talent getting a chance to keep on playing and take that next step.
Q: Up until recently, you were coaching in the MLB. What’s next for you in baseball?
A: I haven’t decided yet. There’s a few things I’d like to do. I’d like to either get back into coaching or get back into broadcasting. I’d love to join the Toronto Blue Jays broadcast with Jamie Campbell and Joe Siddall, pre-game and post-game. I’m back in New Brunswick, so it’s a nice hour and 40 minute flight up to Toronto and I just think I have a lot to offer.
Being a hitting coach is very tough, because you’re dealing with 13 different personalities, but you’re also dealing with 13 other hitting coaches that they work with. I was a line-drive, home run hitter. I had the ball in the air consistently and I was old school and I think eventually we’re going to go back to seeing the old school, but we’ll see. I’ll keep the door open and I might go to winter ball this year and coach or, honestly, it really depends on what teams are looking to bring me in.