By KEVIN GLEW – Canadian Baseball Network
Matt Stairs must feel at home in Alberta.
The former big league slugger, who was at Seaman Stadium in Okotoks, Alta., as a special guest at the Western Canadian Baseball League’s All-Star Game on Saturday, has a brother that lives in Calgary and he and his wife, Lisa, were staying with his ex-sister-in-law in Okotoks.
It was also in Alberta with the Oakland A’s triple-A Edmonton Trappers in 1996 that Stairs turned his pro career around. At age 28, after seven seasons in the minors with only short stretches of big league action, he decided to open up his batting stance.
“It helped me to learn how to hit the ball properly to right field and left field,” said Stairs of the stance change he implemented in Edmonton. “I got sent down [by the A’s] and then Mark McGwire got hurt and then he came back. It was just me deciding that I didn’t want to be in the minor leagues anymore and it took off from there.”
It certainly did.
Stairs batted .344 with eight home runs and 41 RBIs in 51 games for the Trappers and was recalled by the A’s in early July and would never spend another day in the minors.
“I loved Edmonton. I’m a diehard Canadian, so I loved being in a Canadian city, so I had a blast there and the rest is history,” said Stairs.
Stairs went on to enjoy a 19-year major league career and belt 265 home runs, which is the third-most by a Canadian in major league history. Twenty-three of those homers were pinch-hit blasts which is a big league record. For his efforts, he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015.
After tenures in broadcasting with the Boston Red Sox (2012-13) and Philadelphia Phillies (2014 to 2016) and two seasons as a major league hitting coach with the Phillies (2017) and San Diego Padres (2018), Stairs has returned to his hometown of Fredericton, N.B. and taken on the position as technical director of the city’s minor baseball program.
Stairs’ trip to the Seaman Stadium in Okotoks, Alta., and his tour through the Okotoks Dawgs facilities this past week seemed to inspire him.
“The facilities here are awesome,” said Stairs in an interview on Saturday afternoon. “John (Milton) walked me through it yesterday . . . The ballpark is awesome. I absolutely love the fieldhouse area. That to me is what I’m trying to get done in Fredericton. I would like an indoor facility where the ballpark is next door . . . It’s a gorgeous facility and it’s a great organization.”
Stairs, who has been in his post with Fredericton minor ball for two years, has made significant strides with the organization.
“We have 645 to 650 kids registered in Fredericton, so I’m basically an instructor and I travel around to ballparks almost every night and spend a couple of hours to help run practices and give pointers on hitting,” he said.
Stairs has initiated year-round programs for the young players.
“I run the winter program where I set up out of a high school,” he said. “I started a spring training program two years ago . . . and then last year I started the fall program for the first time.”
Stairs’ enthusiasm and pride for his programs are palpable, but he still wants to improve them.
READ MORE: Q&A with Matt Stairs
“Let’s just put it this way, they’re [the young players] on the field more than they’ve ever been, which is nice,” he said. “And it’s still not enough. Really, it’s not. You’d like to have the young athletes be on the field three or four times a week practicing.”
The young players in Fredericton are fortunate to have Stairs steering their program. It’s also clear that the ex-big leaguer is still passionate about hitting. That was evident when he addressed the WCBL All-Star Game participants prior to Saturday’s contest.
“The biggest thing you need as a hitter is a short memory,” Stairs told the WCBL All-Stars. “You need to let it go . . Hitting is easy. Getting hits is hard.”
Later, Stairs could be seen behind the batting cage during BP offering pointers to the All-Stars, who listened intently to a man who has hit the most pinch-hit home runs in major league history.
“Here’s for me how it worked out so well: People say, ‘How did you become such a good pinch-hitter?’” Stairs said in a Saturday afternoon interview. “The answer is, I accepted my job, I accepted my role. I could’ve very easily sat there and been all pissed off and why is he playing and why am I not playing? But when they said, ‘You’re going to be a platoon guy/pinch-hit guy,’ I loved it. I wanted to be that guy facing Mariano Rivera because I have a good short memory and if I have a failure, I’m right back at it the next day.”
But can pinch-hitting really be as simple as having a short memory?
“When I was sent in to pinch-hit, I never expected to get a hit,” explained Stairs. “All I thought about was to have my approach, to stay true to my approach and if it works out, it works out and if it doesn’t, tomorrow’s a different day. . . Early in my career, I would say, ‘OK I need to get a hit.’ I’d look at the scoreboard and I’d be hitting .280 and I wanted to get a hit to get to .290 and what happens is you end up going 0-for-15 because you’re pushing so hard to get a hit. And I just said, ‘You know what? I don’t expect to get a hit.’ If I could keep my mind set on my approach, it usually worked out pretty well.”
That’s an understatement from the stocky 5-foot-9 Maritimer who played nearly two decades in the majors and ranks in the top five of almost every significant all-time offensive statistical category among Canadian major leaguers.
Stairs seems content in his role leading the minor ball program in Fredericton, but could he ever be lured back to a big league job as a hitting coach?
“The only way I’d go back to the big leagues is if things changed, things changed back to the old style. I’m not a firm believer of the new style of hitting. Everyone thinks all of the home runs is because of the new style of hitting. No, it’s not. It’s because pitchers don’t throw inside anymore,” said Stairs. “There’s no respect between hitters and pitchers anymore. If I covered a fastball from Pedro Martinez outside and inside, where do think the next pitch was going to be? It would either be at my neck or my ribs.”
Stairs says he hates the phrase, “[Back] when I played,” but he finds it difficult to watch a major league game these days.
“I maybe showboated one home run in my life and that was after a guy threw at me twice and missed me and the third one I hit out,” said Stairs. “I respected the game and I still do and that’s the reason why I have a hard time watching the game . . . I know people want everyone to have fun and I think the way to have fun is to be respectful to the other guy and the other team. But that’s just me personally . . . I’m a guy that if you hit a home run, you put your head down and run the bases and I’m into the high five instead of getting the cowboy hat or the Blue Jays give a coat or pearls or whatever you get nowadays. . . I’m not saying what they’re doing is wrong. Fans enjoy it and the players have a good time, but if I’m a visiting pitcher and that’s being done to me, I’m pissed.”
Stairs has certainly earned a right to have that opinion.
Few Canadians can equal his baseball resume. And after speaking with him, you can’t help but feel that Canada is fortunate to have him back and still passionate about hitting and willing to impart his wisdom — all the way from Fredericton, N.B. to Okotoks, Alta.
More from Matt Stairs
Five interesting quotes from Stairs from my interview with him:
On the pinch-hit game-winning home run he hit against Los Angeles Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the 2008 National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium. It’s a home run many feel changed the tide of that series and propelled the Phillies to their World Series title. Also, Stairs hasn’t had to buy a beer in Philadelphia since this homer.
“I think as an individual and team momentum switch that was probably one of the biggest hits I’ve ever had, if not the best,” said Stairs, “because it was great that I had an individual home run, but more importantly for the team, I think it just took the wind out of the Dodgers. [Shane] Victorino hitting the big home run, then Chooch [Carlos Ruiz] getting the base hit and then the Dodgers bringing Broxton in and to hit the home run, it just kind of quieted the 55,000 people very quick. I think as an individual and team-wise that was the biggest home run I ever hit.”
On his love for hockey (He serves as a hockey coach at Fredericton High School. A diehard Montreal Canadiens fan, he was an excellent player in his youth until he was sidelined by a knee injury.):
“I follow hockey as much as I can . . . I hate to say that I’m a big fan of Connor McDavid. I know I probably shouldn’t say it in Calgary, but I’m also a Calgary fan. I’ve been to many games here because my brother lives here.”
On what it was like to be a big league hitting coach:
“I had two fun years of being a hitting coach,” said Stairs. “I really enjoyed the Philadelphia one. The one that happened in San Diego was you started working with guys and then you have to send it [hitting data] back to their hit guru guy they use in the off-season, so you’re battling hitting coaches everywhere and it just wasn’t fun. It was a lost battle because they’re paying these guys money in the off-season to work on their hitting and they’re not paying me, so who are they going to listen to? So when I got fired it was fine by me.”
On whether he was a Montreal Expos fan growing up in New Brunswick :
“Yes and no. Honestly, I was an Oakland A’s and a Boston Red Sox fan . . . As far as the Expos, I watched them, the same as the Blue Jays, I watched the Blue Jays. It was an honour to play for Montreal and Toronto . . . But I never watched a lot of baseball back then. I was more hockey and I still am. I mean, I don’t watch baseball anymore. I watch all hockey.
“But I enjoyed playing in Montreal, it was awesome. Quick story, when I first get called up to Montreal, I’m doing an interview like I’m doing with you and as soon as the interview was over, all of these reporters were handing me envelopes and I’m like, ‘What the hell is this?’ They paid players for interviews. So I was like, ‘If you ever want an interview, I’m game. I’ll do interviews all day long.’ That’s how it was in Canada back then. They gave envelopes for doing interviews. Now, it wasn’t a lot of money, but for a guy like me who was a minor league guy for seven years, you’re getting $300 or $400 cash from guys for doing an interview, it was like heck ya.”
On playing for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2007 and 2008 and hitting at Rogers Centre :
(Writer’s note: Stairs had one of his best major league seasons with the Blue Jays in 2007 when he batted .289 with 20 home runs in just 357 at bats. He also became a huge fan favourite in the city.)
“The background at this beautiful ballpark [Seaman Stadium in Okotoks, Alta.). I would struggle here because it’s so bright around it. I just found that inside the dome in Toronto with that batter’s eye, I could just see the ball so well . . . When I became a Blue Jay, it was just the support I had from everybody . . . And Gibby [manager John Gibbons] he was tremendous . . . He was my favourite manager of all-time and he ended up getting fired and they brought in Cito [Gaston] and Cito wanted a younger team and he let us older guys go. But I loved playing in Toronto. I just enjoyed going to that ballpark every day.”