Sunday, July 24, 2011
#146) JON MATLACK
Jon Matlack was selected by the New York Mets in the first round (fourth overall pick) of the free agent draft on June 6, 1967. The 18-year old was taken after Mets' super scout, Whitey Herzog stated, "...for his age–his poise and control are better than any young pitcher I've ever seen."
The young left-hander joined a talented pitching staff when he made his New York debut on July 11, 1971. Matlack got the start facing the Reds at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium in the second game of a double-header that day. Mets catcher, Jerry Grote came to the mound before that game and asked if he was nervous. "No" replied the southpaw. "I'm scared to death." He pitched well, allowing only two runs in seven innings of work, but did not factor in the decision. Legendary staff ace, Tom Seaver surrendered a home run to Tony Perez during a rare relief appearance. The walk-off blast gave Cincinnati a 5-3 victory.
Matlack's first full major-league season came in 1972. It was then that he proved all the early predictions of his talent to be true. On the final day of spring training camp in St. Petersburg, Florida he recalls counting the lockers that still had uniforms in them. "I finished counting and gave a little fist pump and Gil Hodges had walked through the door and caught me," Matlack remembered. "He said, 'That's right kid. You made it.' He died a few days later."
Jon took his opportunity and entered the starting rotation. He would win his first six decisions and establish the best start by a Mets rookie pitcher in franchise history. (The effort was equalled by Dillon Gee in 2011.) Matlack finished the year with a 15-10 record, 2.32 ERA and 169 strikeouts. This earned him the 1972 National League Rookie of the Year honors. "Somebody called me up and said, 'You're the Rookie of the Year.'," Jon recalls. " I said, 'What's that?' I was just tickled to death to be there, and was trying to do things I needed to compete to the best of my ability."
On the final day of that season he became forever linked to the great Roberto Clemente. In front of his hometown Pittsburgh fans the future Hall of Famer entered the record books on September 30, 1972. "I had no idea he was sitting on 2,999." Matlack said. "I was just trying to win a game. When I gave up the double–I think it short-hopped the centerfield wall–there was all this hoopla. The ump presented him the ball at second and I'm glowering and thinking, 'Hey, we have a ballgame here.' I was just an oblivious rookie. Then I saw it on the scoreboard. That was his 3,000th hit."
The Mets would advance to the 1973 World Series behind their strong pitching who defeated Cincinnati's fabled Big Red Machine. Jon baffled the Reds offense in Game Two of the National League Championship Series holding them to just two hits. Matlack was then given the ball in Game One of the Fall Classic facing the Oakland A's, and only allowed three hits in six innings. Jon returned to better that in Game Four where he gave up one one run in eight innings of work and recorded the victory. However, Matlack and the Mets would fall just short of a World Championship in the decisive Game Seven. The left-hander surrendered home runs to Bert Campaneris and Reggie Jackson during the 5-2 loss.
Jon represented the Mets in the Major League All-Star Game on three occasions. He shared the Most Valuable Player Award for the 1975 contest with Bill Madlock of the Chicago Cubs. "To this day I just think they got the names confused," Matlack said with a grin. "although I did pitch two pretty strong innings." Jon became both the only Met to ever win the award, and the first player from any New York club to do so.
The Mets traded Jon Matlack to the Texas Rangers as part of a four-team trade that involved a total of 11 players on December 8, 1977. During his seven years in New York, he would strikeout 10 or more batters in a single game nine times, throw 65 complete games, and pitch a one-hitter at Shea Stadium against the Houston Astros. Making him undoubtedly one of the greatest pitchers in team history.
After his playing career ended in 1983, he first worked in commercial real estate and then raised horses on a ranch in Texas. Jon returned to baseball in 1988 as a minor-league pitching coach. Matlack has coached at both the minor and major-league level and became the Detroit Tigers minor-league pitching coordinator in 1996.
Jon Matlack signed his card in the set for me following the Toledo Mud Hens and Indianapolis Indians game at Victory Field on July 6, 2011.