For Matthews clan, baseball a family affair
Sons Gary Jr. and Del proud to follow in footsteps of father Gary Sr.
CHICAGO -- Approximately one month ago, Gary Matthews Jr. was speaking to a group at the University of Texas about African-Americans in baseball, and specifically Jackie Robinson's historic dreams regarding this exact topic.
Gary Jr. took an educated guess at Robinson's goal for African-Americans to become managers and general managers and owners. Toward the end of this speech, Matthews Jr. brought up his family.
"I said that I don't know what exactly Jackie's dreams were, but I hope my family owns a small piece of those dreams for African-Americans," Gary Jr. said during a phone interview from his Orange County, Calif., home.
"We've had positions as players, as All-Stars. My father has been a coach, he's been on radio, he's been on TV," Gary Jr. said. "My younger brother has been in the front office. I'm so proud my family has occupied that small piece of those dreams."
The Matthews family has plenty to be thankful for at this time of year. Then again, they have much to be proud of or celebrate at any time on the calendar. And as Gary Jr. explained, some of those greatest achievements came through baseball.
Known to all as "Sarge," Gary Matthews played for five teams over a 16-year career that featured a .281 average and 234 home runs. He currently works on Phillies broadcasts but lives in Chicago, where he found fame as the left fielder of the 1984 Cubs team that came one win away from reaching the World Series.
Del Matthews had a brief Minor League career as part of the Brewers organization but now serves as assistant director of player development and scouting for the White Sox. And Gary Jr. played for seven teams over a 12-year run that included one All-Star selection in 2006 before retiring after the '10 campaign.
Countless young boys grow up playing baseball in their backyard or at the local park, envisioning someday putting on the uniform of their favorite team. The Matthews brothers did their growing up around Major League ballparks and ended up going into the family business.
"We loved this game and this sport and just being around it. Watching Dad prepare, it shaped us with the work ethics we have," Gary Jr. said. "You see your father get up at 6 in the morning, go to breakfast with him and watch him get ready for day games at Wrigley. It can't help but have an impact with the way you work."
"That's all we did was play baseball," Del said. "We'd play catch, go hit, go to the cages. Play baseball in the living room, anywhere we can form a game. We'd play in the tunnel of the stadiums. It's funny now when I'm going home and going through the tunnel [at U.S. Cellular Field] and see other players' kids throwing the ball around and playing baseball. That's what we did."
When Sarge was holding down left field at Wrigley Field, his focus was on helping the Cubs get to the postseason. But every now and then, he would allow himself to look up to the bleachers and see Gary and Del running around with other players' kids. They got to know standouts from Pete Rose to Shawon Dunston along the way, and created lifelong memories.
There was one occasion when Matthews hit a home run with the Braves and Del was serving as batboy. As the father hit home plate, his son was picking up the bat and jumped up to give his dad a high five. Gary Jr. ended up playing the same left field for the Cubs at Wrigley that he watched his dad do 15 years earlier.
"Really unique," Gary Jr. said of the career symmetry with his father. "There aren't words to describe how much it means."
"As a dad, I never pushed baseball," Gary Sr. said. "Even if they had great days, I never said, 'You'll be a Major League player.' We talked more so about going to school."
Playing baseball was a common conversation had between Gary Jr. and Del. Not just playing, but the team where they would end up, winning a World Series, making All-Star squads and playing with and against each other.
They were together in Arizona one Spring Training, with Del part of the Brewers and Gary Jr. with the Cubs, and maybe someday again they can work together as part of a front office. Del returned to the University of Illinois-Chicago after his playing career didn't work out, and he eventually decided to go into the business side of the game.
He ran the Arizona Fall League in 2005 and made his way into MLB's executive-development program, which gave him great experience through a department rotation in New York for one year before being placed with a club. That club was the White Sox, with Matthews having earlier talked to then general manager Ken Williams for a college assignment.
Since the fall of '08, Del has been a full-time and important part of the organization.
"I'm so proud of him," said Gary Jr. of his brother. "The White Sox have been great for him, and he's grown in his professional life. He has a unique skill set."
"Definitely, I'm very thankful and privileged and blessed to have the opportunity to do what I love and have a passion for," Del said. "It's a connection with my dad and my brother, it brings us together. We always have that bond."
Dustin, Dannon and Paige join Gary Jr. and Del as part of the full Matthews family picture. That athletic prowess extends throughout the immediate family, with their cousin Aja Evans an Olympic bobsledder and cousin Fred Evans a defensive lineman for the Vikings.
Both Del and Gary have children of their own, possibly extending the Matthews baseball legacy. One of the grandchildren's present baseball connections comes from singing the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley with Gary Sr.
With the holidays fast approaching, it's easy to see how it already has been a wonderful baseball life for this tight-knit baseball family.
"There hasn't been a major decision in my life that I've not talked with my dad or my brother about," Del said. "From that standpoint, I feel thankful and a great sense of pride.
"My dad has been there for me and for my brothers. For us to still be able to tap into his life experience and his wisdom, it has made us all better because of that. I take a lot of pride in being my father's son."