"Just go make something up!”
Twenty years ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks found themselves in a transitional season, hoping to clutch on to one more shot after back-to-back National League West titles and a historic World Series win over the Yankees in 2001.
The Diamondbacks of 2003 still had their core of Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Matt Williams, Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley, and Mark Grace, but each were on the wrong side of 35. Injuries and underperformance caught up with much of that core, and by early May Bob Brenly’s club was already 10 games out of first place.
Enter the “Baby Backs,” an infusion of young talent who breathed new life into the team and city and thrust the Diamondbacks right back into the National League West and Wild Card races, thanks largely to a 12-game winning streak in June.
Infielder Matt Kata was a key member of the Baby Backs that season, and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
Coincidence or not, the 12-game winning streak began in Kata’s second career start in June. An injury to Junior Spivey necessitated Kata’s call-up and he joined fellow rookies Brandon Webb, Alex Cintron, Robby Hammock, and Oscar Villareal to give Diamondback fans an exciting young group to go with the beloved veterans that filled out the roster.
Ultimately, the 2003 D‘backs had a winning season, going 84-78 in what would be Brenly’s last full season as manager. Kata had 288 at bats over 78 games, batting .257 with 16 doubles, five triples, and seven home runs that season.
Kata played 13 seasons professionally, five in the major leagues; and he proved to be a valuable utility man whenever he was given a chance in that role.
He’s passionate about the sport and excited to share his stories, so join us as we go Spitballin’ in part one of a two-part interview with Matt Kata.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Kata! You have had some incredibly interesting experiences that you were a part of that I wanted to ask about, but first let’s get started by going back to your childhood. What was baseball like for you growing up as a kid?
Everyone always talks about the difference between now and “back in the day.” I’m 45, so I was lucky enough to not have my face buried in a screen all the time. I spent most of my days outside growing up on the east side of Cleveland. The weather wasn’t the greatest there, but it didn’t matter. Rain, sun, or snow, we were out there in our cul-de-sac which served as a makeshift baseball field. The only issue was that if you were a right-handed power guy, you’d hit it into Mr. Davies’ yard, which was his baby. He must have just sat at his window and the second a ball touched his yard, he would snatch up the ball and end the game. It forced us to stay up the middle or go the other way, which was a good thing!
Being from that generation as well, I’m guessing you and your friends were all multi-sport athletes and didn’t specialize in one sport.
Oh yeah. In the summer it was baseball and then in the fall it was football. We didn’t have fences in our yard, so the two yards together became a nice long football field. In the winter we had a basketball hoop in the driveway. We were just always playing and competing. We’d play home run derby or just make up games to play in the driveway. I stay connected to my buddies on group chats and we’re always talking about what an awesome childhood we had. We had freedom and could ride our bikes to everyone’s houses.
When I grew up, if you played hooky from school there was always Cubs day baseball on WGN. So I answered Dan Patrick’s question with, “Watching Mark Grace in the shower taking ten minutes to get the pine tar off his hands.”
When did you get into playing organized baseball?
Again, it’s much different today when they’re starting up tee ball sometimes at three years old. I don’t think I played organized baseball until about eight years old. Everything now is so structured to the point where kids don’t know how to make up a game. You get three kids and give them a pile of bats and balls and they don’t know what to do because they don’t have 18 guys. Just go make something up! I remember one day (as an adult) I showed the neighborhood kids the game running bases. Some people call it pickle. I threw down a hat for one base and some cardboard for the other. A couple days later, my doorbell rang. Nowadays when your doorbell rings, you get all angry. I opened the door and there was a tiny human struggling to hold a tennis ball and two throw down bases and he asked if my son could come out to play. I was so excited. I let him go, and hung out by the window and watched how they organized the game. It was great.
That is awesome. Stuff like that is totally needed today just about more than ever. You mentioned growing up in Cleveland; were you an Indians fan?
Yes, I remember going to the old Municipal Stadium and watching Julio Franco play. Then I’d go in my yard and imitate his swing. I saw some great visiting players come through like those A’s teams and Bo Jackson too. I was a huge baseball card collector too. My dad was a big part of it. He was a good player, but wanted to become a doctor, so he never pursued baseball after high school. He introduced me to the game and taught me the history of the game. He would tell me about getting to see Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. He’d always talk about one of his favorites, Rocky Colavito.
Second baseman Matt Kata #11 of the Arizona Diamondbacks attempts a double play against Jeff Baker #10 and Michael Restovich of the Colorado Rockies on April 19, 2005 at Coors Field in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Gotta love The Rock! Good choice by your dad. As a kid who clearly loved baseball, what was it like when you finally got that call-up to the Diamondbacks in 2003?
It was a dream come true. As I grew up and got introduced to the game and really loved it, I worked hard and got better at it. It was something where I laid my head on the pillow at night as a kid and dreamt about it all the time. When teachers asked me in school what I wanted to be when I grew up, it was always a baseball player. Even as I got older and some kids would start to change those plans to being a doctor or whatever, mine never changed. I got drafted and worked my way through the minor leagues; then one day playing in Tucson I got called into the manager’s office and was told I was going to the big leagues. Being from Cleveland, I tell people it was like the scene in Major League when Willie Mays Hayes runs outside of Hi Corbett Field and does that little dance in celebration. Maybe I didn’t do the dance, but it was one of those things where I took a moment to celebrate a little before making all my calls. It was everything I had dreamt of and put in all the hard work for.
That’s a great comparison. Can you share the story of your call-up and those first days in the majors?
We were in Tucson and it was a Saturday. The Diamondbacks were playing in Minnesota and the game was on TV in the clubhouse. I noticed Junior Spivey tear up his ankle legging out an infield hit. I didn’t think too much of it because oddly enough, not that long before that, Tony Womack got hit in the wrist and he was down on the ground flopping around in pain. All the guys thought it would be me to replace him. I had let my guard down, so when I wasn’t the one to replace him, I was kind of disappointed. So when Junior Spivey got hurt, I didn’t think about it. But then Al Pedrique called me in and told me I was being called up. After my little celebration, I realized that I didn’t even have clean clothes, and I had to get out to Phoenix the next morning for my flight to meet the team. I went back to my apartment, did three loads of laundry and drove to Phoenix. I didn’t get there until like 1:00 AM. I got some sleep and was on the first flight out in the morning to Minnesota where the Diamondbacks were playing a day game.
I landed, got in a taxi and basically just had to tell the cabbie, “Uhh…the Metrodome?” He asked me where I wanted to go and I told him I was a player who just got called up. He drove to an area and dropped me off. It was like 12:20 and it was a 1:00 PM game. I am always a guy who arrives early and over prepares, but this time found myself rushing around. I finally got into the clubhouse around 12:40 and found my locker. By the time I got dressed, it was too late to even get out there in time for the anthem.
Center fielder Steve Finley #12 of the Arizona Diamondbacks slips and misses a catch after almost colliding with teammate second baseman Matt Kata #8 against the Chicago Cubs on May 6, 2004 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Was that the same day you made your big league debut?
Yes. I figured that it was an American League game and I probably wasn’t going to get in there as a bench guy. Sure enough though, they put me in to pinch run. So I was in the Metrodome and there’s the white bubble roof above me and the turf out there. I ended up scoring my first run and went out in the field for the bottom half. Usually when you went to Minnesota you’d take a bunch of pop-ups and fly balls because it was tough to see in there. Next thing I knew I was getting my first at bat against Tony Fiore. He threw a changeup and it was like slow, slower, and slowest. I got out in front of one and hit it down the line and I swear if there was replay back then it might have been fair, but it was called foul. I ended up striking out. The next day was an off day, so the timing of that was great. I had a day to settle in and make a bunch of phone calls.
Not to ruin it for the readers, but you had a pretty impressive game your first major league start. The floor is yours to talk about the first game you started in the majors.
It was at Minute Maid Park against the Astros. Junior Spivey was going to be out, so I was the guy at second base. I struck out my first at bat in Minnesota, so that wasn’t how I envisioned things. This game, I was facing Jeriome Robertson, who unfortunately has since passed away in a motorcycle accident. He was a left-hander and I remember my first at bat I hit a hard grounder to second. It was an out, but at least I made contact. My second at bat he threw me a changeup first pitch and I swung and hit a home run almost up on the tracks at Minute Maid. It hit above the Crawford Boxes and bounced down into left field. Lance Berkman was in left and I was a teammate of his later on. Now, if it’s your first big league hit they announce it and everyone is aware. Not back then though, so he wouldn’t know it was my first hit. He picked up the ball and tossed it into the stands.
Looking back at the video of it, you could tell when I’m rounding second I’m holding back a big smile. Now celebrations are a lot different. Even if I played now, though, I wouldn’t be bat flipping. I would act like I’ve done it before. I still think about it, especially the feeling off the bat when you hit it perfectly where there’s no feeling.
Matt Kata of the Texas Rangers field during the game against the New York Yankees at the Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York on May 10, 2007. The Rangers defeated the Yankees 14-2. (Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB via Getty Images)
That 2003 Diamondbacks team was an interesting one. You had the veterans from the 2001 World Series team reaching the end of their careers and some new players like yourself were transitioning in. What was that first season like for you?
That was a real fun start to my career after being called up. We lost the game I got my first start, but the next game immediately after that we went on a 12-game winning streak. That put us back in the Wild Card race. We had some young guys and they called us the “Baby Backs.” It was awesome because it reignited the city and it was just a fun team. The roster overall was older, so guys went down with injury which opened the door for some of the AAA guys. It ended up being a good mix. I was so fortunate to come up in that culture. I was surrounded by awesome veterans who took the time to show me the ropes. They taught me how to treat people from the clubhouse guys to everyone else. Matt Mantei was our closer and you wouldn’t think I’d connect with him, but he took me and Robby Hammock under his wing. He was outstanding to us. Everything was so new and it really helped having familiar faces like Robby, Brandon Webb, and even Alex Cintron up with me. There were just so many awesome moments from that season. I would go to a new stadium and be looking around. I’m not someone who takes everything for granted, so at times I had to tell myself to just play the game because I was trying to take everything in.
There were so many former Indians I used to watch on TV still around the league. The most memorable one was Marquis Grissom. He played one season in Cleveland on the team that went to the World Series and I remember he was on second base. I said to him that I loved watching him play in Cleveland when I was a kid. He was kind of like, “Man whatever! I could still run circles around you!” He took it as a young dude calling him old, but it was all in fun.
Catcher Ivan ``Pudge`` Rodriguez #7 of the Florida Marlins is tagged out at third base by Matt Kata #11 of the Arizona Diamondbacks on July 30, 2003 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)
That’s awesome. It’s great to hear how much you value your experience and remember the stories from your first year.
It was so much fun and there were so many real good veterans on that team that I got to learn from. One of the stories I tell a lot about that 2003 season was about the 12-game winning streak. I started out hot. I was like 33 for my first 100 and was playing second base every day. I ended up getting asked to be on the Dan Patrick Show. I was still living at an Extended Stay in Phoenix. Scott Podsednik was on before me and the producer told me that interview was a bunch of clichés. He told me that for the first question I should answer it with some baseball cliché. Dan Patrick asked the first question and I gave the Bull Durham line of “God willing…” and there was a pause as if he was saying, “No way this is gonna be the same thing.” I had to break the ice and say I was just messing with him. From there it was a great interview.
One of the questions he asked was what the best thing I had been able to do up to that point in the majors. The first thing that came to mind for me was that I was a huge Mark Grace fan growing up. When I grew up, if you played hooky from school there was always Cubs day baseball on WGN. So I answered Dan Patrick’s question with, “Watching Mark Grace in the shower taking ten minutes to get the pine tar off his hands.” To me, I meant it as he was just this awesome baseball guy with no batting gloves taking the pine tar off his hands after a long game. But Dan Patrick says, “So you’re a big leaguer and the best thing you have done is watch Mark Grace in the shower?” I had to defend myself a little bit and it was a fun conversation. All my buddies said it was the best thing ever. They said they were still playing soundbites from the show for months after.
Absolutely fantastic! It’s been great hearing about your path to the majors and your experience as a rookie. It’s really cool to hear the enthusiasm when you talk about baseball. Let’s pick it up next week with some stories about some of the great moments you’ve been involved with. We have some great Randy Johnson stories to cover!
Part II of Spitballin’ with Matt Kata will run next Friday, only at BallNine!