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Mudville: May 17, 2024 5:46 pm PDT

Matt Kata II

"The stories are what keep it alive.”

As BallNine closes in on the three-year mark, it’s hard to comprehend how many baseball stories we’ve been able to share with fans everywhere. One of the missions of BallNine from the start has been to bring fans baseball stories right from the players themselves. We had the idea that no matter if a player was a Hall of Famer, a cup of coffee guy, or even someone who had a long professional minor league career, they would have wildly entertaining baseball stories fans would love.

That has been validated time and time again.

While it’s always great to hear the story of a player being called up for the first time or hitting his first home run, unearthing some of the deeper cuts can be even more rewarding and entertaining.

Last week, former Diamondback Matt Kata joined us for Part 1 of an interview that covered the nuts and bolts of his playing career. This week, he joins us to share some stories from his unique relationships with Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan.

If you’re wondering how a veteran utility man is linked to two fellas who can make a case as the most intimidating lefty and righty pitchers in baseball history, well that’s what BallNine is for.

Be alert for a brushback pitch this week, as we go Spitballin’ once again with Matt Kata.

Thanks for joining us again, Mr. Kata! Enjoyed hearing your story of how you made your way to the majors last week. You had some pretty cool events that you were involved in during your time in the big leagues that I wanted to spend a little more time on this week. Let’s start with Randy Johnson’s perfect game. Playing second base in that game, was there a point at which you realized he had something special brewing?

Playing behind Randy Johnson and being a teammate, you knew who he was. He was dealing with a lot of knee pain and getting these gel shots. You saw how he prepared just to get out there. I always played hard whoever was on the mound, but you always wanted to do a little extra when Randy was out there. That game started off typical Randy, but then when we got into the fifth inning you realized something was up. Robby Hammock, who is still one of my best friends to this day, would set up behind the plate, show the glove and Randy would hit it. You were seeing the swings guys were taking and then they’d walk back to the dugout. I started thinking this was something special.

Everyone was like, “Holy shit that was a bird!” I grabbed the rosin and just said to Randy, “Man that was crazy!” He just kind of grunted. It wasn’t even words.

Not only were you the second basemen for that, but you fielded one of the final outs. What is that pressure like, having to make a play in the final inning of a perfect game?

On defense, it’s just natural. But then you look up and realize what’s going on. So the perfect game absolutely comes into play in your head. Whenever I went out on defense, I was saying, “Hit it to me; I want the ball.” Once I realized that nobody had gotten on base, I literally must have said, “Hit it to me” a million times. I even said it to myself in my head when I was hitting because I didn’t want my mind to visualize something negative. I did not allow any space in my head to visualize anything negative. I ended up getting ground balls in the seventh, eighth, and ninth. There were some good plays in the game. Alex Cintron came in on a chopper off Mike Hampton and got him on a bang-bang play.

The first play of the game, Jesse Garcia tried to bunt on Randy. I still see him around Texas and I’ll tell him, “Man, you poked the bear. Nobody bunts on Randy. What the hell were you doing?” Shea Hillenbrand made a nice play on it. When you look at the plays I made, they were six-hoppers where I had time to tap the glove and throw to first. That first ground ball in the ninth, I wanted to run it over to first myself. It was so awesome. That last out I threw the glove up and sprinted to the mound. It reminded me of when I was playing basketball and my legs had a little spring. I could get maybe get a dunk in here or there. But at that point, I could have grabbed a quarter off the backboard when I jumped on top of Randy to celebrate.

Arizona Diamondbacks Matt Kata, #11, center, is congratulated by Alex Cintron, #10, after Kata and Steve Finley, #12, scored against the San Francisco Giants in the seventh inning at Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco on Friday, September 5, 2003. (SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS / Nhat V. Meyer)

What an absolutely incredible experience. Not many players ever have been on the winning side of a perfect game. Now another moment with Randy Johnson that may actually be more famous than the perfect game—when he threw the pitch that blew up that seagull. You were playing second base for that, too. Can you tell us that story?

It was the seventh inning and later in spring training, so he was extending on the mound. I was a “JIC,” a “just in case” guy who travels with the team. Sometimes you get in the game and sometimes you don’t. We had a couple of big innings, so the starters already had their three at bats and were out of there. I was in for Jay Bell playing second behind Randy Johnson. Then he drills the bird! It was my first spring training as a professional. I maybe had a couple at bats and social media wasn’t a thing. You’d have to rely on USA Today and maybe see your name in the box score in the paper. My first thought when Randy hit the bird was to go to the mound. The SportsCenter highlights from spring training were always just that one camera. I was like, “I want to get by Randy so I could be on TV!” Everyone was like, “Holy shit that was a bird!” I grabbed the rosin and just said to Randy, “Man that was crazy!” He just kind of grunted. It wasn’t even words. I left the mound hoping I got a little time. But Randy was pissed. I think it was his last start and he was throwing real well. He was trying to get his pitch count up and that threw everything off. It’s so great to see the photography he does now and that he uses a dead bird in his logo.

You spent a few seasons in Arizona with Randy Johnson as your teammate. What was it like being a teammate of his?

He was a great teammate as long as you didn’t talk to him on game day! He got a bad rap because he’s an ultra-competitive guy. Another story I tell is that I was on deck when he hit his only career home run. It was in Milwaukee. I wanted to meet him at home plate and jump on him, but I had to play it off and be cool about it. I loved being his teammate. I remember back in spring training 2004, someone had gotten him an iPod and maybe he had seen me with mine, but he asked me if I knew how to work them. He asked me to set it up for him and of course I’m not gonna say no to Randy Johnson. The next day he brought his computer in and I synced everything for him. When it was finished, I was curious to see what kind of music he had. I was scrolling through and stopped on a song title that was in German, so I had to push play. I don’t know what they were saying, but I felt like I had to take a shower when I was done listening. I wanted to shake someone or run through a wall. That was his pregame playlist. Everything with Randy started to make a little more sense after that. Like any competitor, he took his craft seriously. One of the veterans told me don’t talk to Randy on game day and don’t mess with him when he’s doing his stuff. I didn’t, and found him to be a super nice guy and really great teammate.

Arizona Diamondback second baseman Matt Kata makes the throw after diving for a ball hit by Dodger Alex Cora in the second inning at Dodger Stadium, May 29, 2004 (Photo by Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

That’s awesome and none of that is surprising at all. I have some questions about another of the game’s most intimidating pitchers: Nolan Ryan. I read that you played “Rangers era” Nolan in the Facing Nolan documentary. Is that true? How did that come about?

There was already a connection there. My wife’s sister is married to Reid Ryan. I’ve been married almost 20 years, so I have known them a while. In random conversation, I had told Reid that like most kids, if you saw video from me pitching in Little League, I was out there imitating Nolan Ryan’s windup. I jokingly would tell him I could imitate your dad better than your dad could! When they were talking about making Facing Nolan, we had just moved back to Texas. Knowing that I could do an imitation of his delivery and that I could still throw some balls, they asked me if I could play him. I said, “Dude, I would be honored!”

I got a good taste of the movie world. They didn’t give me any directions besides, “Just throw.” They didn’t tell me to act like him or anything. But me being me, I figured if I was going to do this on film, I wanted to be as best as I could be. There are a lot of videos on YouTube of Nolan pitching, but there were some where the camera just stayed on him, so I could see some of the little intricacies with his sleeve and hat. I had a ton of fun with it. The end product was so well done. A lot of my stuff got cut out because they ended up being able to use a lot of game footage of him, but the guy who played young Nolan got a lot of time.

That’s beyond incredible. What was the production like?

It was done over one night in October from like 6:30 PM to 6:30 in the morning. We went all night. I would change into uniform then sit around for a couple of hours. I was 43 and had still been doing long toss with my kid; I was making sure I was ready. I would do the weighted ball warmups and cages beforehand. When it was my down time, I didn’t want to sit around too long. I wanted to stay fresh, but probably ended up throwing over 200 pitches. They put me on the mound again at about 5:45 in the morning and built some contraption that went over the mound and wanted to see how it looked. I threw the first pitch and was like, “Oh man, that wasn’t good.” Then I threw another and told them I didn’t know how much I had left. It felt like I was gonna need Tommy John after it was done! Luckily, they said they got exactly what they wanted, though.

The other cool thing about Facing Nolan was that when the main cover came out, it was me wearing Nolan Ryan’s jersey from the back. You would never know it’s me. I wasn’t a big memorabilia guy when I played, but my wife got me a framed poster of the movie cover. So we opened this new branch in Georgetown, Texas and when we were opening up, Nolan and his wife Ruth came by. People were asking me if I was going to get the poster signed, but I didn’t really want to bother him with that. The HR director of the bank, who was very tight with Nolan, basically told him he had to come into my office and sign the poster. I got this nice new office and the first two people to sit across my desk from me were Ruth and Nolan Ryan and he signed the poster. He signed it thanking me for my work in the film. That’s a pretty cool conversation starter for the office!

Really cool to have that experience with Nolan Ryan, though. There are just so many awesome stories about him and each one is better than the next.

Oh yeah. I have another good one with him. In 2002 I was up in a suite at a game at Dell Diamond in Round Rock. The candy bar Baby Ruth did a contest where you got to hit off Nolan Ryan. Tom Arnold was the celebrity that was gonna be one of the guys to hit off him. I think Nolan was going to pitch to nine hitters. Now these were just contestant winners from wherever. Afterwards, Nolan broke down every single hitter. He said stuff like, “I watched him in batting practice and knew if I just keep it down and throw it here, I’d be OK.” Some he said he watched their first couple swings and adjusted from there. I love hearing that side of anyone who is good at anything. The behind the scenes of what goes on in their heads. Tom Arnold actually got two hits off him and even with that he was just like, “I had a plan for him, I just missed my spots.”

It’s just unbelievable to have stories like this with guys like Nolan Ryan. This is all really fantastic.  

Here’s one I don’t tell as often as I should. It was 2005 and I was with the Diamondbacks. Nolan and Ruth Ryan were out in Phoenix and they had their grandson Jackson, who is Reid’s son and my nephew. He was about five at the time. They asked if my wife and I wanted to meet them for lunch before I went to the stadium. We were at one of those restaurants that rotates. We were in this half-moon booth and I was at one end and Nolan was across from me. At one point while we were eating, this guy comes up to the table and looks at me and says, “Oh Matt, I’m a huge fan!” Then he turns and looks right at Nolan and Ruth and says, “I’m so sorry to disturb you.” Then he turns back to me and asks if I could sign an autograph for him.

I just paused for a second and looked across the table at Nolan and said, “Sure thing man!” I expected him to know [Nolan] too. But he wished me luck in the game that night, turned to Nolan and made eye contact with him and apologized again for interrupting lunch. I looked at Nolan and smiled and he was smiling too. If that dude only knew. Every now and then when I get an opportunity to be around Nolan I might say something, but I need to remind him more often about the time someone asked for my autograph over his.

Thank you for your time, Mr. Kata. You absolutely have some of the more unique and unbelievable stories I’ve ever heard while doing Spitballin’ and I think you’re about the 170th person I’ve interviewed. Fans love these stories, so I appreciate you sharing!

This is the best part of any sport, especially baseball. I personally love hearing the back story of someone’s life and career. It’s a huge fraternity, but I saw that graphic of everyone who ever played in the major leagues and it didn’t even fill up a portion of a stadium. It’s one of those things where I don’t take for granted that I got to play major league baseball, even if it’s not something I go around bragging about. I played 14 years overall professionally and it’s such a great game. The stories are what keep it alive.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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