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Gabe Kapler spent parts of 12 years in the major leagues from 1998-2010, playing for the Tigers (1998-99), Rangers (2000-02), Rockies (2002-03), Red Sox (2003-06 – with a brief interlude in Japan), Brewers (2008) and Rays (2009-10). He also spent a year managing the Red Sox’ Single-A affiliate in Greenville. Follow him on Twitter @gabekapler. You can read his earlier articles for BP here and here and listen to his discussion of advanced stats on Effectively Wild with Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller here.
The photograph of my former Double-A hitting coach Matt Martin posing with his all black high school baseball team tickles me. Just as he does now in the culturally diverse world of Minor League Baseball, Matt, a blond-haired, blue-eyed man, stuck out then like an orange in a pyramid of apples. In my mind’s eye and without effort, I can see the teenaged version of Matt strutting through the cafeteria, oblivious to the eyeballs trained on him. He’s Eminem in 8 Mile, with less of the ungodly talent and no awareness of his awkward whiteness.
That was my naïve interpretation, or my fantasy of what was. The reality, it turns out, was drastically different. Matt felt more at home at his high school—which by his definition had 90 percent black, 9 percent Latino and 1 percent white students—than in any other environment since. He was universally accepted and looked up to by his classmates for his athletic ability on the baseball field and basketball court. Additionally, Matt displayed his toughness hanging with his peers in a game called “Chest and Ribs,” essentially a fist fight where only an uppercut to the jaw was off limits. Matt was a peacock.
Stepping into the professional baseball-coaching world would be far more vexing than his experience at Estacado High School on the East side of Lubbock, Texas. In pro ball, he would be deflated by a group of field staff who with spiteful intolerance of independent thought regularly hammered down a different-shaped nail.
I remember the first time I saw Matt at Tiger Town in Lakeland, Florida in 1997. In an ecosystem where the coaches wore golf shirts, Matt rocked a full Run DMC-style sweat suit and baseball cap. “That’s odd,” I thought to myself as I digested his serious countenance and erect posture. His was the face of a baby, surrounded by sun-blasted, leathery faced colleagues for whom we rookie minor leaguers were used to standing at attention. From my perspective, Matt had nil in common with the other coaches, and that’s probably what intrigued me about him.
Matt and I bonded early, but not yet deeply, in the complex’s weight room over our mutual love of Ice Cube, DJ Quik, and the Houston Rockets. We each had severe man crushes; his on Hakeem Olajuwon, mine on my childhood idol, Charles Barkley.
In 1998, we spent the season together in the tiny, filthy clubhouse at the since deceased Wolfson Park in Jacksonville, Florida. It was in the bootleg batting cage, the nets literally collapsing on our heads, that I spent countless hours relentlessly striking balls inconsistently weighted off a tee, with Maniac Matt by my side, invisibly grimacing to support me as I fought through the sessions. “Relax your hands,” Matt would tell me. “Breathe.”
Matt’s intuitive comprehension of what would make him a great coach was granted by the gene genie or some higher power, not learned. It’s not his understanding of mechanics, although that certainly is a contributing factor. And it’s not his experience. It’s love.
I felt Matt’s passion firsthand. I knew he stepped to the plate with me, sunk his spikes into the dirt with me, and navigated the game’s emotional swings by my side. When I recognized this about him, I knew I was in the presence of a platinum heart.
If there is another soul as passionately loyal as Matt’s in the game of baseball, I haven’t felt its presence. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who had him as an infield coach in major-league spring training at Camelback Ranch in Phoenix, agrees. “The best thing about Matt is his loyalty,” Mattingly says.
In 2011, I was in camp with the Dodgers and witnessed Matt impacting players for the first time since he mentored me in 1998. He bounced around the desert complex assiduously overseeing every infielder with the same care. He speaks Spanish fluently, and the ear-to-ear grins on the faces of Latin players assured me I was witnessing a difference maker.
I investigated further to confirm what my small sample was telling me. I sat with then-Dodgers middle infielder (and now Kansas City Royal) Jamey Carroll over a typical ham-and-hard-boiled-eggs spring training breakfast. I asked him about Matt’s knowledge, with the understanding that the two men had begun a routine of daily work. Jamey had the dope and gladly dealt it. He was emphatic: “Matt’s the real deal. He certainly knows what he’s talking about.”
Every infielder I poll tells me the same thing: Matt’s knowledge and understanding of infield mechanics is second to none.
So why is Matt Martin not helping your big-league club this season? Partially because he’s different and opinionated, and because baseball is notorious for disliking both attributes. His appearance and teaching style are drastically divergent from the MLB cultural norm. In a world where conformity feels safe, Matt can come off as threatening—not in the least to players, but certainly to other staff members.
When he disagrees with you, he will let you know, no matter who you are. Sometimes without filter and often times when he shouldn’t. Sugarcoating doesn’t sit well with him. He views it as disingenuous.
“Matt will give his honest opinion, even if he stands alone,” Mattingly told me.
Standing alone, it turns out, is not conducive to ladder climbing. Martin, 44, is currently responsible for overseeing the Baltimore Orioles organization’s defense as the minor league Infield/Latin American Field Coordinator. The O’s are his sixth organization. He’s been coaching since 1995. Prior to getting his foot in the door as a coach, he had a short playing career in the Cincinnati Reds organization, reaching high A-ball.
In contrast, Mattingly was one of the greatest hitters of his generation. When he walks into a clubhouse, images of pinstripes, eye black, and upper-deck blasts flood the collective memories of the players present. He has their undivided attention, but that’s where his advantage ends. After that he has to prove his value with substance, and he delivers. Don is somehow able to maintain a level of humility that allows him to remain totally approachable, an often-overlooked leadership quality. He remembers how hard the game was, and players can exhale knowing that their manager is patient and empathetic to their struggles. From my vantage point, Don is more the exception than the rule.
Teaching is the name of the game in player development, and the lessons are all encompassing, not limited to baseball skills. It’s human development—the shaping of men. Being a superb player doesn’t qualify you to be a successful coach. Part of what makes a special teacher is his or her own struggles and tinkering, which provides the foundation for relating to a player who is having a rough go. If something comes particularly easy for you, it may be more difficult to convey methods of repair when your student gets out of whack. After all, you likely didn’t spend much time scrambling and searching for ways to fix yourself.
In my career I’ve had former MLB hitters as batting coaches who attempted to plug me into another hitter as their main method of counsel, which is not a formula for success. “You see how player X does it? Do it like that!” It’s difficult to buy into the equation that me plus an attempt to hit like someone else equals success.
On the flip side, I’ve worked with a Southern California-based hitting coach, Craig Walenbrock, who has progressive, applicable ideas about swing mechanics and attempts to back each of his theories up with hours of video. Craig never played professional baseball and is better equipped to teach hitting than dozens of MLB all-stars.
In my own experience, baseball men, when challenged, often lean on undependable data such as the success of a counterpart’s playing career. Today’s professional baseball culture gives too much credence to coaches’ playing success, which really isn’t indicative of the ability to help current players get better. Matt and other coaches like him can teach regardless of the limited information on the backs of their baseball cards.
Here’s an archetypal script of a conversation behind the scenes:
Baseball man with MLB service time: “I don’t think (insert prospect) will ever hit in the big leagues. He doesn’t have the bat speed.”
Collective voice of the meeting: “He’s right.” “I saw him in the Eastern League and he struggled.”
Baseball man without MLB service time: “I disagree. I’ve seen him get to plus velocity pitches in off the plate consistently. He will hit at the next level.”
Collective voice of the meeting: Quiet. Skeptical eye contact. Queasy energy.
In subsequent hypothetical conversations, it would be commonplace for men who were in the meeting to gossip about the fact that baseball man no. 2 played very little professional baseball, treating that as a sign that the man with the highest level of experience—and with the most service time as a player—owns an opinion with more merit.
This game of ours functions like an old boys’ club. Relationships act as catalysts to position acquisition within an organization. In a perfect world, personal relationships would be the deciding factor when all else is equal. In baseball, relationships weight the scales more than merit, and therefore clubs lose the opportunity to benefit from superb assets like Matt.
Matt recently interviewed with a prominent organization for a coveted Field Coordinator position and was not awarded the job because, among other factors, he didn’t have “a name.” The work went to someone who did. I can’t help but giggle at the absurdity of this reasoning, and at the same time, I’m not surprised.
There is a portion of the baseball community that lowers the volume on their collective hearing aid if the man standing in front of them wasn’t a great player.
The yardstick the baseball community has used to evaluate Matt has been flawed to a degree. His talents have afforded him the opportunity to impact the lives of numerous MLB infielders, but not to wear a MLB uniform.
I’ve had the good fortune to be in the dugout with Perry Hill (one of Matt’s early mentors), Tom Foley, Bucky Dent, and many more respected infield coaches around baseball. And after talking to enough players and managers to satisfy my curiosity, I can safely say that Matt is as equipped as any to lead the defensive charge for an MLB team.
Rudy Jaramillo and Joe Maddon, two of the men who impacted my career the most, never played high-level professional baseball. But personality matters. Unlike Joe, Matt doesn’t make nice well, and unlike Rudy, he doesn’t stare into your soul and tell a story with his eyes. Matt is all substance and no fluff, refusing to kiss ass and rub noses. But he’s a difference maker with the players he works with.
It’s my opinion that the best coaches in baseball can have a quantifiable impact on a player’s success. If nothing else, they make a tangible psychological contribution in a game where outcome is highly dependent on mental state. Wins have been estimated to be worth roughly six million dollars (variable per team), yet every MLB staff has someone with a name and lots of service time who offers very little in the way of productivity. Replacing that someone with a quirky, difference-making no-namer who has world of love and potentially a win to give might help light your cigar and decorate your hand with a piece of ostentatious jewelry.