#STINGDAILY: Scratching the Surface

Aug. 26, 2012

By Steve Hunt

This year marks Matt Wieters’ fourth in Major League Baseball and the former Georgia Tech catcher has already twice been an American League All-Star, and in 2011 became the first catcher in Baltimore history to win a Gold Glove. So if the early returns are any indication, this ex-Yellow Jacket who is still only 26 figures to get even better with each passing year behind the plate for the Orioles.

After a stellar career at Tech, where he became only the third player in school history to earn first-team All-America honors twice, he was taken fifth overall in the June 2007 Amateur Draft. His big-league debut came nearly two years later, in May 2009, and he has only gotten even better with each passing day.

“He’s a special human being. His mom and dad, they’ve got to be very proud of him on and off the field. He’s a guy that makes you proud to be around the big leagues because he’s what this should be about,” Baltimore manager Buck Showalter said. “He grasps that he makes 130-140 decisions a night and he gets four at bats. He’s got his priorities in order on the field and off of it.”

Showalter has been a Major League manager for 13 seasons and previously guided the Yankees and Diamondbacks to the playoffs. Besides a solid resume as a big-league skipper, he also served as an analyst for ESPN between managerial gigs. Now in his second full season at the helm in Baltimore, he has turned the O’s from an AL East afterthought to a legitimate contender for one of the league’s two wild card playoff spots. And one reason for the huge turnaround is that Showalter has helped assemble a solid roster, a group that clearly respects the veteran baseball man.

“It’s been great. Buck’s matured me as a baseball player just as much as Coach Hall in college. He’s really a thinking man who really wants to try to teach the game,” Wieters said. “Everybody knows that he knows the game, but he does a great job of making sure his players know the game too so they can take that knowledge onto their future years in baseball.

He’s one of six GT products currently in Major League Baseball, a group also including fellow American Leaguer Mark Teixeira of the Yankees, a fraternity he feels honored to be part of. “It’s big. It’s one of the main reasons I went to Tech, you see the success they have of getting guys ready for the next level,” he said. “Coach Hall does a great job of preparing guys not only for the college season and trying to win in college, but to also prepare them for the minor leagues and for big-league baseball. I always felt like he was probably the best coach at being able to run a college team to get them ready for the professional level.”

His collegiate resume is truly impressive. The South Carolina native hit the ground running, earning 2006 ACC Rookie of the Year honors after hitting .366 with 10 HR and 68 RBI, a Tech freshman record. In 2007, he earned first-team All-America honors from Baseball America after hitting .355 with 15 HR and 71 RBI plus was MVP at the Atlanta Regional of the NCAA Tournament. And as a senior, he hit .364 with 10 HR and 59 RBI to finish his college career with a .359 average, 35 HR and 198 RBI in 185 career games.

“Great times, college baseball was always a dream I had growing up and to be able to go and play at a top program like Tech it was awesome. On top of that, I was able to meet my future wife,” Wieters said of his time in Atlanta. “Learned a lot of lessons that have helped me both on the baseball field and just in life when I was in college.”

By the time he went fifth overall in the ’07 draft, he had already earned a reputation as one of the top up-and-coming catchers in the great game and was even being compared to several current big leaguers, most notably Jorge Posada of the Yankees and Jason Varitek of the Red Sox, also a Tech product. “Anytime you’re compared to somebody who’s been an all-star for many years and just play in the Major Leagues for as long as those guys were is a huge compliment,” he said.

However, one of the more interesting aspects of his college career was that he spent all or parts of his three seasons as Tech’s closer, an experience that he feels still benefits him to this day as a big-league catcher. “I was familiar with the emotions and feelings that go through you while you’re on the mound, whether it’d be a certain situation to calm somebody down or fire somebody up,” Wieters said. “I think I was more of a thrower in college than a pitcher. I always thought about pitching when I was catching.”

Right off the bat, many prospects drafted out of high school have a tough decision to make. Do they take the money and start pro ball right out of high school or do they delay starting their pro career a few years by heading to college to mature a bit on and off the field? Matt wasn’t drafted out of Goose Creek High School in South Carolina, which made his decision to attend Tech a no-brainer and considering he spent just under two seasons in pro ball before making his Major League debut, the college path is clearly one he still endorses.

“That’s something that I lend to going to college. You see a lot of high school guys that hit every level and they spend a full year at every level. I was able to after spending three years at Tech, to be able to start at the same level that a lot of the high school guys that had just gotten to and that’s something that college baseball, especially as good as it is now prepares you for the high levels of minor league baseball,” Wieters said.

His big-league debut came on May 29, 2009 against Detroit, the very same day he was recalled from Triple-A Norfolk. Since then, he has logged nearly 500 games and over 1,700 at-bats for the Birds, but that unique experience of realizing a lifelong dream of making his debut with the O’s is something he won’t soon forget. “It was great,” he said. “We had a great crowd and got to play at home for the first game, which was great. I remember mostly we got a win, which was more important than anything else. Didn’t get a hit in my debut but to get that win and catch a win was exciting.”

In 2011, he was an AL All-Star for the first time, an experience he repeated earlier this season in the 2012 Midseason Classic. Being an all-star is something he feels will never get old but he admits being one in ’12 carried with it a much different vibe than it was for him heading to the ’11 game for the first time. “It’s great to me, especially this past year to be voted in by your peers. You feel like you get some respect from the rest of the league, which is a great feeling,” Wieters said. “First time, it’s realizing that goal of always wanting to be an all-star and the second time, it’s more relaxing and I probably got to enjoy more activities the second time because you have been there before and you know different events you want to go to.”

But this fourth-year backstop isn’t too concerned about such individual honors. He figures if they come, then they come but if not, it’s far from the end of the world. That’s because the goal of both he and his Baltimore teammates remains a simple one-help return the Birds to the playoffs, somewhere they haven’t been since 1997, when Baltimore fell to Cleveland in the AL Championship Series.

Through 122 games, the Orioles are 67-57 and five games behind the AL East-leading Yankees. However, Baltimore was tied with three other teams for the two AL Wild Card spots, a race which looks like it will indeed last until almost the final day of the regular season in early October. The O’s organization has even gone so far as to send out playoff tickets to its season ticketholders. But while he and his teammates are proud of the huge turnaround this season, they also realize that even now, with 40 games remaining, there is plenty of baseball left to be played. However, it has been nice to finally be part of a winning team in Baltimore, especially considering how bad the Orioles were earlier in his big-league career.

“It’s great to be able to be part of a winning team. We’ve got a great bunch of guys here. We knew what our goal was coming into spring training-play as hard as we can and get as many wins as we can,” Wieters said. “I was spoiled all the way growing up. I was always on winning teams. Then this year, being part of kind of a turnaround and seeing how this organization has changed since the three years I’ve been in the big leagues is huge. It makes it even more rewarding when you are part of that turnaround.”

At age 26 and now in his fourth big-league season, Matt Wieters has already accomplished a good deal in Major League Baseball. The former Georgia Tech star is a two-time American League All-Star and won a gold glove at catcher in 2011, the first Orioles catcher ever to win a gold glove. However, the next thing he wants to add to his big-league resume is some playoff baseball, a goal he and his Baltimore teammates are well on their way to realizing as one of the frontrunners for an AL Wild Card spot. When the playoffs start in early October, hopefully he and fellow GT product Mark Teixeira of the Yankees will give the MLB postseason a bit of a Yellow Jacket flavor in the Junior Circuit.

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