By Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun
8:36 PM EDT, July 11, 2011
Orioles catcher Matt Wieters has always been obsessed with sports.
He made baseball cards of the U.S. presidents for a fourth grade history project. He traded his Nintendo video game system, the Christmas gift he had to have, for a golf club.
His dad, a former minor league pitcher, taught Wieters to switch-hit about the time the toddler could pick up a plastic bat.
So it was a big day in the Wieters' household when the 4-year-old could finally play on a recreational soccer team. When his family arrived at the initial meeting and practice, Matt stayed by his mom's side. When the rest of the kids followed the coaches onto the field, the boy remained on the sideline, refusing to move.
"No one could coerce him," his mother, Pam, said. "But then, after watching for a while, he ran out onto that field. And then he never quit running."
Roughly two decades later, Wieters is a multimillionaire professional athlete, a first-time All-Star and the Orioles' lone representative in Tuesday night's game in Phoenix. The 25-year-old has been a shining light in what has been another desolate baseball season in Baltimore.
In a sense, though, Wieters is still that cautious boy, waiting until the time is right before asserting himself.
"He's not a talker. He's always been a listener and a watcher, even at home," Pam Wieters said. "He didn't want to be a part of anything until he could watch it, understand it. And then he would go in 100 percent. That's how he has always been."
In just his second full season as a big leaguer and fourth in professional baseball, Wieters, with his easy laugh, dry wit and impeccable study habits, has emerged as the soft-spoken but intense leader of a relatively inexperienced pitching staff.
"He is just very attentive for being a young player, and so I think that is the biggest thing. The calmness he shows, the confidence that he has and what he does," Orioles bench coach and catching instructor John Russell said. "To be that far advanced in the situations of the game, game-calling, working with your staff on fundamentals — he has excelled in those areas. And that's why it is going to be fun to continue to watch how much better he does get."
Wieters, 6 feet 5 and 225 pounds, leads the majors in caught-stealing percentage with an impressive 44 percent (24 of 54 thrown out), and he has not allowed a passed ball in 656 innings behind the plate this season — the only qualifying catcher with that distinction.
Offensively, he hasn't excelled, but he's on pace to set career highs in several categories and owns a better average with runners in scoring position (.383 in 69 plate appearances) than any other full-time catcher. In the first half, he batted .264 with eight homers and 34 RBIs. But those around him say you can't measure Wieters' contributions purely with statistics.
"One of the reasons you like him so much is that he has such a respect for the game and his teammates," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He came in here with all of these lofty expectations that nobody could have lived up to. But he brings what he brings every day, I think, because he cares so much."
Any story about Wieters, All-Star or otherwise, is incomplete without mentioning the expectations. A two-time All-American at Georgia Tech, he compiled a career .359 average in three seasons while also saving 16 games as the Yellow Jackets' closer.
He was drafted by the Orioles with the fifth overall pick in 2007 — just the second catcher (along with the Seattle Mariners' Matt Clement) taken in the top five since the Minnesota Twins selected Joe Mauer No. 1 overall in 2001. Wieters received a then-record $6 million to sign with the Orioles and breezed through the minors, hitting 32 homers and 31 doubles in 169 games and earning the scouting moniker of "Mauer with Power."
His call-up to the major leagues was announced during an in-game telecast on club-owned Mid-Atlantic Sports Network by president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail — a flashy move by a conservative executive. Wieters' debut, on May 29, 2009, drew an announced crowd of 42,704 to Camden Yards, roughly 30,000 more than the previous night's attendance.
"I think if you are going to pick someone high and give them [an] over-slot amount of money, there are going to be high expectations on you," Wieters said. "I don't know if they were any higher than they should have been. I have always had high expectations for myself, whether I was the first pick or the 800th. I have always expected myself to succeed at this level."
How high was the Wieters' bar?
This spring, Baseball Prospectus, an online and print organization dedicated to statistical analysis, listed the biggest draft disappointments of all time and included Wieters, though he had had only 800 big league at-bats (hitting .266 with 20 homers) at the time.
"It is a limited number of at-bats, that's true," said Steven Goldman, the Baseball Prospectus editor-in-chief who wrote the piece. "However, when you look at players at that [superstar] level, there weren't that many that struggled for two or three years and then suddenly turned it around and became great players. That's what we expected him to be."
The lofty projections, Goldman said, were based on what Wieters had accomplished as an amateur and a minor leaguer. The fact that he hasn't lived up to those gaudy offensive numbers — and most likely won't, Goldman believes — is what landed him on the list. Wieters will have "at the very least a very solid career," Goldman says, but it's disingenuous to think that an average bat and above-average defense is what the Orioles and baseball fans envisioned when he was drafted.
"Yes, things could change, but, given the small sample size, we are already getting into the area of wishful thinking," Goldman said, adding, "I'd like very much to be wrong."
Wieters laughs off those sentiments, but others aren't so dismissive.
"I get on the Internet and I'll read the blogs, and I probably get a lot madder about it than he does," said Wieters' father, Richard, a fifth-round pick of the Atlanta Braves' in 1977 who spent five seasons in the minors. "A lot of people rip on him, and they don't realize what kind of player he is. So much stuff was put on him so early, and nobody can meet those expectations. But, really, he doesn't let it bother him."
Perhaps that's because Wieters seemingly was born to be a baseball player — and a switch-hitting catcher.
"I knew from playing baseball that if you could catch and switch-hit, you'd have a shot," Richard Wieters said.
Coached for years by his father, the young Wieters often played with teammates several years older. But it wasn't until a tournament in Atlanta when Wieters was about 16 that his father realized how special of a player his son might become. He entered a game in relief with the bases loaded and no outs and struck out the side on nine pitches. A scout told Richard Wieters the pitches were clocked at 95 mph.
Wieters began drawing attention from colleges and went on an official visit to Georgia Tech, where longtime coach Danny Hall met with him and his parents and explained how the team wanted to use him — that he would get time at first base, catcher and pitcher.
Wieters displayed no emotion during that discussion, just took it all in. When he later met with his parents back at their home in Goose Creek, S.C., he said he was positive that Tech was where he wanted to go. It floored his mother, who had been watching her son during the interview and had gotten no indication of which way he was leaning.
"He will not do something before he thinks it through," his mom said. "And he wanted to make sure it was something we could support."
The poker face fooled Georgia Tech, too. They called the next day and upped his scholarship offer.
Don't think that Wieters is always emotionless, though. In a recent loss to the Rangers in Arlington, Texas, Showalter said, no player was more visibly angry than his catcher.
"Tough game, tough loss. And Matt purely [was fired up] in the dugout when the game ended," Showalter said. "Some guys will just give that to you, an act, but he is sincere. I'd love to see my daughter walk through the door with someone like that."
That sincerity is perhaps why it's easy to believe him when he said all the right things after learning of his All-Star selection. He first asked whether any of his teammates — such as Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy — had made it. He called it a reward for the work he has put in this year but not license to stop improving. And he said he didn't look at it as a vindication of his young career.
"The expectations I more would like to meet are the expectations of bringing this team back to the playoffs, bringing this team back to the World Series," Wieters said. "If we can keep getting players who are going to buy into this system and if we can keep improving, I feel like that can happen. And I think that will be more valuable than any amount of All-Star games."
He quickly added that he still felt making the All-Star Game is "a great honor."
Growing up as a Braves fan, he loved watching the game and the Home Run Derby when his amateur baseball schedule would allow it. He said he looked forward to this week so he could pick the brains of other players such as Braves catcher Brian McCann on balancing hitting and defense and the Philadelphia Phillies' Roy Halladay on preparation.
He also said he hopes to add to his meager baseball memorabilia collection, which includes one item that's not from his career: a signed Chipper Jones jersey he bought at a charity auction.
Otherwise, Wieters expects this week to be a low-key one. Case in point: His posse joining him at the event consists of his wife, mother, father, grandmother, sister and brother-in-law.
When Wieters asked Hardy, another understated Oriole whom he has bonded with, about what he should look for during the All-Star festivities, the shortstop, a 2007 selection, said: "Soak it all in; take in as much as you can."
That shouldn't be hard for Wieters. Because, along with playing sports, that's what he has been doing most of his life.
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