By JAY LeBLANC
In the April 1, 1985, issue of Sports Illustrated, George Plimpton introduced the world to mysterious New York Mets phenom Sidd Finch. The 28-year-old eccentric had dropped out of Harvard and traveled to Tibet to learn “yogic mastery of the mind-body,” which allowed him to throw an absurd 168 miles per hour. Many fans were understandably disappointed when Sports Illustrated reported in its next issue that Finch had retired from baseball. The following week, the magazine confirmed that the Sidd Finch tale was nothing more than an unusually creative April Fools joke.
Nearly a quarter-century later, rumors spread about a linebacker-sized catcher with an arm that would make many NFL quarterbacks jealous. Some speculated that this freak of nature could one day be a big league batting champ, while others who watched him launch moon shots from both sides of the plate saw home run titles in his future. The Baltimore Orioles gave him $6 million before he played a single professional game in hopes that he could be the one to restore the franchise to its past glory. Though it will be nearly impossible for him to live up to the hype, Matt Wieters is not a hoax, and he’s set to make his Major League debut Friday night when the O’s take on the Detroit Tigers at Camden Yards.
Wieters, the 2008 Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year, was summoned from Triple-A after hitting .343 with 32 home runs and 132 RBI in 169 minor league games. Orioles manager Dave Trembley made clear after Wednesday’s game that Wieters - who had a .305 average and five homers in 39 games this season for the Norfolk Tides - isn’t coming up to sit on the bench. “I’m going to write his name in the lineup and he’s going to play,” Trembley said. “I’m not going to tell you where I’ll bat him in the lineup. You’ll see it. He’s going to play. He’s coming up here to play.”
As baseball fans await the most anticipated positional player debut in recent memory, let’s take a look back at where Wieters’ head was at last May, just several weeks into his pro career. I had the chance to speak with the Georgia Tech product and Goose Creek, S.C., native after his Frederick Keys played an afternoon home game, and he talked about his adjustment to pro ball, his approach at the plate and one of his baseball role models.
Q: When you heard you had been drafted by the Orioles, what was your first reaction? Were you excited?
A: Oh yeah. The dream since you’re a little kid is to play Major League Baseball, and any team you play for is a great experience. Baltimore, being on the East Coast and close to home (Goose Creek, S.C.), it just seemed like a good fit.
Q: Is there any player, past or present, that you try to model yourself after?
A:Chipper Jones was always my guy growing up because he’s a switch-hitter and the Braves games are on TV a lot, so I grew up watching him and I try to model my swing sort of like his.
Q: Could you describe your approach at the plate? Do you come into an at-bat looking for a specific pitch, or do you just kind of react to what’s thrown?
A: Well, what you’ve got to do, early, especially - is look for a pitch you can hit and then later, if you get two strikes, you’re going to just have to battle. I think that’s the approach most times going into at-bats - looking for a pitch you can hit hard, and then going into battle mode.
Q: To what extent do you utilize videotape and scouting reports when preparing to face a certain pitcher?
A: Scouting reports are huge, especially because in this league you see guys, sometimes, some pitchers, four and five times, so it’s good to be able to remember what they threw you and that sort of thing. Videotape, it’s not as accessible in Minor League Baseball, but at the same time, any time you can get your hands on it, you’re happy to look at it.
Q: What are some of the aspects of your game that you’re trying to improve upon this year?
A: This year I’m trying to be able to get ready for a 140-game season, because coming from college and playing 60 games, now I’ve got to get my body and my mind in shape for 140 games.
Q: Which is closer to big-league ready right now - your hitting or your defense?
A: I think they both need some work. You’ve just got to keep working hard on both aspects of the game, and hopefully you’ll get there one day.
Q: When do you see yourself making your big-league debut? Do you have a specific goal in mind?
A: No goal. Whenever they let me I’ll be excited to be there, and it will be a great experience whenever it is.
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Click here to view the orignial Matt Wieters National Pastime Prospect Q&A