Sept. 13, 2017
THE FLATS – From 2005 through 2007, Georgia Tech baseball could count on Matt Wieters for eight innings to be one of the premier catchers in the nation, both at the plate and behind it.
For the ninth inning, the Jackets counted on Wieters for something else. He became one of the conference’s top closers.
Sounds like a lot of responsibility for just one guy. But Matt Wieters is not just one guy. He also wasn’t doing it for one guy. He was doing it for all the guys in White and Gold.
“The family atmosphere that we felt as a baseball team, it was something to where we would do anything for the guy next to us,” he said. “It was great to be able to win and to be able to have the success we had but the relationship I had with a lot of the guys I played with is what really stands out to me now.”
Wieters will join a new family on Sept. 22, the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame family, when he joins Roger Anderson (tennis), Durant Brooks (football), Roberto Castro (golf), B.J. Elder (basketball), and Ashley Kidd (track and field) as part of the Class of 2017. The induction takes place at the College Football Hall of Fame as part of Hall of Fame Weekend.
He knows a little bit about his classmates.
“Roberto Castro I remember most, and my wife (the former Maria Hampton, a Tech cross country athlete in her day) and I have actually run into him a couple of times around Atlanta,” he said. “I was a big fan of B.J. Elder from when I came on. I was a freshman when he was a senior. To be able to see what he did in 2004 and kind of lead that team to the Final Four was something. He was a guy I looked up to as far as what he did with the Tech basketball team. I remember going to football games and watching Durant Brooks boom them. It’s a close-knit group of athletes at Tech, and so I’ll always follow anybody that’s on the PGA Tour or the NFL.”
Wieters, in his ninth season in the major leagues, had plenty of followers while at Georgia Tech. He was a two-time first-team All-America — one of three Yellow Jackets ever to earn the honor (Jason Varitek in 1992 and 1993 and Nomar Garciaparra in 1993 and 1994 are the others) — and a three-time All-ACC honoree, including conference rookie of the year in 2005. He still ranks in the school top 20 in career batting average (.359, 13th), runs batted in (198, ninth), doubles (54, tied for ninth) and total bases (418, tied for 16th), while on the pitching side he’s seventh all time in career saves (16), including seven in 2006. He also had a team-high 9.95 strikeouts per nine innings that season. For his career he pitched to a 3.83 ERA and strikeouts to walks ratio approaching 4:1 (83 strikeouts vs. 24 bases on bslld).
Still Wieters never expected to receive the honor of Athletics Hall of Fame induction from Georgia Tech.
“I never really thought of what would come out of my career at Tech from that aspect,” he said. “Tech gave me so much. I would not be where I am in my professional career now if I didn’t have Tech. I was so grateful for that that I didn’t expect anything else to come my way. So it’s just another great honor that going to Georgia Tech blessed me with.”
A native of Charleston, S.C., Wieters chose Georgia Tech because of head coach Danny Hall’s track record of developing players the propensity for getting them the next level.
“Coach Hall is so big on getting guys to where they can succeed both at the college level and prepare them for professional baseball,” Wieters said. “That was one of the main things that drew me to Coach Hall and drew me to Georgia Tech. I know I’m proud that he’s able to have as many guys as he has be able to go into the Hall of Fame (Wieters is No. 14) because he’s meant that much to me as a coach.”
Wieters meant a lot to the program in his years.
As a freshman he batted .366, with 83 hits, including 17 doubles and 10 homers, with 68 RBIs and was as efficient closing, going 3-3 in a career-high 26 games, with a 2.85 ERA (13 earned runs in 41 innings), and six saves. He helped the Jackets go 45-19 (22-8 in ACC play) and the ACC regular-season and tournament championships and won ACC Rookie of the Year honors. Wieters was at his best in the conference tournament, winning the first two games — one-run affairs against Wake Forest and Florida State — then saving the championship game against Virginia. They’d win the Atlanta Regional played at Russ Chandler Stadium before falling in the Super Regional.
The following year, the Jackets took it a step higher, and again Wieters played an even bigger role. He hit .355 with 92 hits (20 doubles, 15 homers) and 71 RBIs. On the mound he was 1-3, with a 3.41 ERA in 21 games, saving seven. He struck out a career-best 35 while walking only eight. Tech went 50-18 (19-11 in the ACC) — it’s the last GT team to win 50 games in a season — then, after falling to Clemson in the ACC Tournament, bounced back in the NCAA Tournament, starting again in the Atlanta Regional at Russ Chandler.
Wieters closed out a 7-5 win over Stetson, a game in which he also homered, then caught as the Jackets knocked off Vanderbilt, 7-3. They advanced with a second straight victory over Vandy, 8-4. Wieters homered, then closed the game out. It was an impressive regional, as the Yellow Jackets won successive starts against Stetson’s Corey Kluber, the 2014 Cy Young Award winner, and Vandy’s David Price, the 2012 Cy Young winner.
“You knew it was going to be a tough regional going into it with Stetson and Vanderbilt coming in. It’s something to where you know you’re getting two of the better pitchers in the country,” Wieters recalled. “To be able to battle and grind out and get wins against them was huge. At the same time, the great thing about college baseball is you can ride so much emotion and so much adrenaline that it really doesn’t matter if you’re facing Nolan Ryan or Greg Maddux on the other side. You’re going to go out there and feel like you can win every game.”
Tech rode that emotion through the Super Regional, rolling through College of Charleston, to earn a trip to the College World Series.
The Jackets fought gamely, but lost to Clemson and Cal State Fullerton and were eliminated. The latter was mixed emotions for Wieters, who homered as Tech build up an early 4-0 lead, but was unable to hold a 5-4 lead in the ninth, as the Jackets fell, 7-5.
“It was something where it ended bitterly,” he said. “But the World Series, that’s what you’re trying to get to every year, just to have a shot and be one of those eight teams out there, and we were able to get there.”
The 2007 season was tough the Jackets (32-25, 15-14 ACC), but Wieters, a team captain, led valiantly. He played primarily at catcher and excelled, hitting .358, with 78 hits, including 17 doubles, two triples, 10 homers and 59 RBIs. On the mound he went 1-4, with three saves in 12 games but struggled with an uncharacteristically high 7.53 ERA.
His season was recognized by the media, which named him a Golden Spikes Award semifinalist and a Johnny Bench Award finalist.
The latter really meant a lot to him.
“Being able to go to the Johnny Bench Award, being considered one of the top catchers in the country stands out,” he said. “I pitched and caught in college, but I loved catching and always considered myself more of a catcher than a pitcher. Just to be honored to be able to be nominated with eventual winner Ed Easley (Mississippi State) and next year’s winner, Buster Posey (Florida State), was a huge honor.”
Major League Baseball also recognized his talent. Wieters would be the fifth overall selection in the June First-Year Player Draft. It matched the second-earliest a Yellow Jacket was ever chosen (Mark Teixeira was selected by the Texas Rangers in 2001). Only Kevin Brown went earlier, being selected fourth by the Rangers in 1986.
Typical of Wieters’ memory of the draft was less about him than about his teammates and Georgia Tech.
“I knew `Tex’ was drafted there. The real cool thing about my draft year is that we had 10 guys drafted that year,” he said. “To be able to see a lot of the guys that you played with in college get to go on and have a shot at the next level was just as cool, if not cooler, than being selected as high as I went.”
“Another cool thing is, I think me, Calvin (Johnson) and a couple of basketball players (forward Thaddeus Young and guard Javaris Crittenton), were all first-rounders that year,” he added. “That was cool to see, Georgia Tech players getting drafted from three major sports.”
Wieters was rock-solid behind the plate for the Orioles for eight seasons. He debuted on May 29, 2009 against Detroit, and proceeded to make four All-Star Game appearances (2011, 2012, 2014, and 2016). Coincidentally, he was on All-Star teams with Price in 2011, 2012 and 2014 then with Kluber in 2014, yet never got to catch either of them, and he won a pair of Gold Gloves (2011, 2012).
He switched leagues prior to the 2017 season, leaving for Washington, where he’s been the man behind the plate for the N.L. East champs, who clinched the division on Sunday.
The Nationals will be at SunTrust Park to play the Atlanta Braves next week, but Wieters is doubtful he’ll be able to stick around for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. As usual, he’s putting team success above individual glory — the Nats are chasing the Dodgers for best record in the National League.
“That’s the hard part about (the induction) being during the baseball season,” he said. “The funny thing is we’re IN Atlanta Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and the banquet is Friday but we play in Philadelphia on Friday. Being a catcher, even days off you still have to be there because if the other catcher goes down, there are only two catchers on the team. So you have to be ready to go in at any time.
“I WISH I could be there,” he added. “I’m disappointed that I can’t be there, but at the same time I’m still honored to be going in with all of the great Georgia Tech athletes that are going in.”
He hasn’t ruled out making an appearance. It just may not be in person.
“A video is something I’m leaning toward,” he said. “Just doing a short clip and let them play that there.”