Catcher, Coach and Guru, Matt Walbeck
"My all-time favorite player was Thurman Munson."
Every spring in America, approximately 500,000 kids take to high school baseball fields across the country, most with dreams of playing Major League Baseball. In reality, less than one percent of that group will make it.
If you took the BallNine Time Machine back to Sacramento High School in the spring of 1986 and told the backup catcher that he should give up his Major League dreams, citing those odds, he would have told you to get in line behind everyone else and get ready to be proven wrong.
That catcher was Matt Walbeck, and he ended up playing 11 years in the Majors. Today he’s using his own experience to foster baseball dreams at the Walbeck Baseball Academy in Sacramento.
Matt Walbeck joins us this week for the latest edition of Spitballin’.
The baseball spark was lit in Walbeck as a five-year-old when his grandmother bought him a glove at a yard sale and not long after, Walbeck set his goal of becoming a Major Leaguer. His father, Ron Walbeck, wasn’t about to rain on his son’s parade with any talk about the odds against that, so they got right to practicing.
Walbeck may have had to wait his turn in high school, but when he finally got that opening, he took major advantage. He broke out as a high school junior and topped his performance his senior year. He was named the Sacramento Metro Area Player of the Year and was drafted by the Cubs in the 8th round of the 1987 draft after batting .484 with eight home runs.
Not only did Walbeck play for 11 years, he also went on to a successful minor league managerial career that saw him win four Manager of the Year Awards. He spent time as the Texas Rangers third base coach too, but now he’s onto his next venture in life.
Matt Walbeck stared down his dream of reaching the Majors.
Today, he is adapting his successful Walbeck Baseball Academy into an online format and like anything else he has put his mind to, success would not be denied.
Major League Baseball has been around since 1871 and over the past 150 years, less than 20,000 people have appeared in a Big League game.
Come Spitballin’ with Matt Walbeck to learn how made it (he was the 13,864th player to play in the Majors) and how he is encouraging those dreams and a love of the game in youngsters at the Walbeck Baseball Academy, especially during this time of social distancing.
Thanks for joining us this week, Mr. Walbeck. I have seen some of the interesting things you’ve been doing on social media with baseball instructions and would love to hear about that, but first let’s start out with your own story. Anyone who hears your story or watches your instruction can tell you love baseball. Where does that come from?
My parents split when I was really young and I was an only child. I was always one of the smaller guys on the team. When I was about five, my grandma picked me up a baseball glove at a yard sale and from that moment on, I just fell in love with baseball. I used to throw balls off the wall to practice fielding. I imagined I was playing for the San Francisco Giants.
I told my dad I wanted to be a Major League Baseball player and without hesitation, he said, “Well, we better start practicing.” He gave me that initial hope that it could happen. He didn’t want to be a dream killer. We started practicing and he built me a tee. I just always believed I would be a Major League Baseball player. I always visualized playing in the Major Leagues.
“I line one to right and end the season with a 1.000 batting average.”
So, growing up in Northern California, were you a Giants or A’s fan? What players did you look up to?
I was born in Sacramento in 1969, but I lived in San Francisco from 1975 to 1977 and I had that Giants fever. Then coming back to Sacramento, I started to like the A’s. I’m one of those guys who likes the Giants and A’s the same. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing.
As far as favorite players growing up, I liked Jack Clark and Willie McCovey for the Giants, but my all-time favorite player was Thurman Munson. He was the guy for me. I modeled my catching game after him and I just admired him so much. I was crushed when he passed away.
That was when I fell in love with baseball to a deeper degree, when the Dodgers and Yankees were playing in those World Series. Reggie Jackson and all of that history and just the energy and excitement.
It’s hard not to get excited about baseball when you mention those guys and teams! You said you were always one of the smaller kids on your teams, but you were still able to keep that dream alive.
All the kids would tell me that I was too small, and I’d never make it. One of my friends in eighth grade said, “Hey, how many kids in America do you think want to be a Major League Baseball player?” I said, “Probably all of them.” He said, “Exactly, so what do you think the chances are of you making it?” I said, “Probably pretty good because most of them have your attitude.”
That’s a great point. After that you moved onto high school. What was your experience like there?
When I was a freshman and sophomore in high school, my coaches told me I was too small to catch and that I’d be better in the field. I had another coach in Pony Ball tell me if I wanted to play in college, I should focus on second base. Well that team, [former Major League All-Star] Fernando Vina was the shortstop and I was the second baseman. We did these drills together where we worked on this really quick short exchange to see how fast we could go. We both had lightning-quick hands ad it turned out to be a great thing for me. It was a great experience to play with Fernando who was the best infielder in Sacramento.
Then you ended up getting your break as a high school catcher going into your junior year and I guess from that point, you were there to stay. How did that come about?
I was going into my junior year and I had this kid in front of me the two previous years. He ended up not getting good enough grades to be eligible, so I stepped right in. I had two coaches, they were twins, Don and Jim Graf, one of them was married to Larry Bowa’s sister Paula. So, we’d get tips from Larry Bowa to learn how to hit and how to have a mental approach. We got second-hand information from Larry Bowa, an All-Star who was a hero of ours. I learned the game and I grew, started lifting weights and got stronger and started to hit home runs.
You always had that goal of being a Major Leaguer. Did you consider going to college or was it right from high school to the pros?
I’d always wanted to be a pro baseball player and I was only 17. I wasn’t even going to be 18 until October. I was barely even shaving; I was just this little kid. My mom was in tears, she wanted me to go to college. My dad was supporting me, and I signed. Then off I went to become a professional catcher for the Chicago Cubs.
That had to be something being a 17-year-old minor leaguer. How do you make that adjustment?
I didn’t know what I was getting into. I didn’t know we were playing 70 games in 71 days and all the bus rides. It was quite a wakeup call, but I went off and had a good year. Second year, I didn’t do that great and then my third year I blew out my knee. Jeff Branson was on second and I was pretending like there wasn’t gonna be a play at the plate. I was acting all cool and when the ball came in, he put a good, clean slide on me, but I tore up my knee real bad.
I was crushed. I thought I may never play again. Then I was thinking maybe I’d never catch again. I just told myself, I gotta shake it, man. I had to find something to make myself better. So, I decided during the time it took me to rehab, I was going to teach myself how to switch hit.
I can’t imagine there are many people who could teach themselves to switch hit starting that late and on that level then to succeed the way you did. Especially while rehabbing a knee that was torn up. How did you pick up on it?
I said to the Cubs, “I’m here with this knee brace and in a 10 to 12-month rehab process. Do you mind if I learn to switch hit? They told me to go for it, so I started switch hitting. But it got to a point where it was too hard, and I wanted to quit. The Cubs said, “Look, don’t worry about the results. Just take one pitch at a time and do your best. We’ll reevaluate after the season.” It was the best thing to happen because it took all the pressure off of me. Four years later, I am in the Big Leagues as a switch-hitting catcher.
Wow, I just can’t imagine that feeling of getting to play in the Majors against guys you grew up watching like that. You stuck around for 11 years and carved out a really nice career. Pretty incredible.
It worked out pretty well. I had a decent career and even got to catch a no-hitter [Scott Erickson, 1994]. That was probably my career highlight. I hit a couple of grand slams and had some great games. I had a great time. Then, in 2003, my last year with the Tigers, Alan Trammell and Dave Dombrowski called me into the office and we had just finished a really bad year. We went 43-119. It was really bad. If we lost by one run, it felt like a win.
They said, “Look, we think you’re a great guy. We’re not going to offer you a contract, not even a minor league contract. We’re gonna move on, but if you’re not gonna play, we’d like to offer you a minor league managing spot.”
I was honored, but at the same time I thought, well, maybe this means my career is over. It’s one of the worst teams of all time and they don’t even want me to play AAA for them. It’s probably time to move on.
Aside from catching Scott Erickson’s no-hitters, your Major League firsts and other typical baseball questions, do you have any stories that are interesting that you don’t get asked about so frequently?
In 2001 I was playing for the Phillies and Larry Bowa was the manager. My wife was pregnant with our second child and 9/11 had happened pretty recently. It was tough and I had spent the season in the minors. It was late in my career. I got called up in September, but I didn’t get to play for like three weeks. Not even an at bat. We’re out of the playoff race and I’m thinking selfishly, I have to get an at bat. I’m not gonna have anything on the back of my baseball card and I didn’t want that. I worked a long time to get to the Big Leagues and I’ve been there every year since 1993.
We were playing the Marlins at Joe Robbie Stadium with a few games left and I went from the bullpen to the dugout and asked Larry to get me an at bat. He said something like, only if [Bobby] Abreu doesn’t get on. We were getting blown out and I was just like, “Larry, come on.”
He asked if my wife was having the baby and I said, “No, not right now.” I actually begged him, and he finally said, “OK, fine.” He sent me in to pinch hit and I hadn’t hit in a game in three weeks. Only against batting practice pitchers throwing 50 MPH.
I got in there and faced Antonio Alfonseca. This dude threw gas and I ended up getting the count to 3-2. I’m thinking, “OK, I either walk, punch out or get a hit.” Sure enough, I line one to right and end the season with a 1.000 batting average.
I have seen the online instructional videos you have been posting live on social media as well. I think they offer great short tips not just on drills or workouts but playing the game properly and showing respect to the game. Where did the idea for those come from?
Yes, I have been doing short live videos on Facebook. I’m not able to instruct players in person but I still want to get my thoughts out there. I just want to share some tips to help people and it turns out they’re getting a positive reception, so I’ll keep doing it. It gives me ideas for other drills and ideas for the app we’ve been working on. We’ll be able to go back and archive those snippets. I just figured, “What the heck, I have an idea and let’s try it out.” Doing it live creates a little more substance.
Having been a player, manager and now a personal instructor for so long, you have seen the world of instruction change. There’s a big divide in theories about how to teach hitting and the analytic game. Launch angle and all those buzzwords. Where do you stand on these newfangled hitting instruction ideas?
I love it. I’m probably one of the only old school guys that embraces it. I think it’s great to hear a lot of these younger guys that never played come out and give their thoughts about the swing and launch angle. I listen and I try to learn as much as I can from the guys on Twitter. I think we’d be silly to just dismiss it and say these guys don’t know what they’re talking about.
In this game, people have been doing crazy things and having weird ideas from day one. There was an old baseball guy, Syd Thrift. The Cubs brought him in back in the early 90s and he had us doing crazy things. He put a tennis ball up on the ceiling and spin it around with strobe lights going. He had all these gimmicks, things like towels on the ends of bats and things like that. So, all these gimmicks were going on when I was a younger player and I just think you have to be open-minded.
That’s not the answer I would have expected, but that’s great to hear you’re open to new ideas and growth. That’s always important no matter what you’re teaching.
I don’t think it does any good to badmouth these guys. Some of it looks a little silly, but a lot of it isn’t. I hear you. There’s a lot of guys out there that get upset and get bent out of shape. I just think, let’s move on. Let’s try to get kids better and not judge everybody.
Here’s an example. I hired one of these Twitter guys as a coach and we’d have these conversations where I would challenge him. But I listened to him and opened my mind. I asked him to tell me more. Then you know what? Eventually I was seeing what he was talking about. I was seeing it wrong the whole time. I guess the big thing is not to take any of it personally. If something is going to make me a better teacher, I’ll use it. If it doesn’t, I’ll ignore it. I’m not gonna sit there and bury a guy.
Now what about the changes in the way the game is played? You haven’t been retired too long, but the game feels like it has totally changed in that time.
I don’t necessarily like the way the game is being played right now. I think they should steal more. I’m not crazy about the catchers down on one knee, you’re sacrificing too much blocking and throwing. That bothers me as a former catcher. I don’t like the way they’re pulling pitchers. But again, the game changes and I need to adjust. The game is bigger than all of us.
But still, they try to hit home runs so much. There’s no moving runners around. When I played, if there was a guy on second with no outs, it was a badge of honor to move them to third. It was playing the game and that’s what we don’t have anymore. Kirby Puckett would be yelling at you to play the game. If you moved a guy over with nobody out, he’d be the first guy on the top step to cheer you.
It’s not as exciting anymore because it’s become all about throwing hard, striking guys out and trying to hit home runs. They forget about moving runners along and playing the game. There’s a way to win baseball games and I’m just not seeing winning baseball being played anymore. It’s all about the individual.
It’s awesome to see a former Major Leaguer giving back to the youth and passing along your experience playing this great game. One final question for you. Is there any message you’d like to leave our readers with?
Yes, it’s that you always have to be ready. I learned that my first day in the Big Leagues. Rey Sanchez came up to me and I wasn’t in the starting lineup. He said, “Hey man, you need to be ready.” I just said, “Yea, yea. I’m ready.” He said, “No, listen to me. You always have to be ready. This is the National League and you could be in the game at the drop of a hat.” I had a couple of times in my career that came into play and I always thought about Rey Sanchez.
One time we were playing in Tampa and Charlie O’Brien was playing. It was late in the game and he hurt himself swinging. He had two strikes on him, and he couldn’t continue. I had to go in and pinch hit for him and I was ready. The rule said that if I struck out, that goes on Charlie’s stats. So, I’m fighting for Charlie because I don’t want that on him. I battled back from 0-2 and drew a walk and it felt awesome and of course – I thought about Rey Sanchez.
You always have to be ready. Things are going to knock you down. You’re going to have adversity and you’ve got to find that silver lining. You just have to keep pushing and not let something that’s happened to you keep you down. You have to be ready. That’s what I love about baseball. It provides an opportunity to go out and compete one pitch at a time and learn from our mistakes. You learn how to not take things personally.
Baseball is a great sport for redeeming yourself. Even as a manager. You do all this preparation and you go out and lose. You get to wake up the next day and go at it again. It’s a new day, let’s go play baseball.