O's catch a natural talent

The Baltimore Sun

The freshman started at first base against powerhouse Miami. Four innings into the game, heat exhaustion sapped Georgia Tech's catcher, so the kid moved behind the plate. In the top of the ninth, he hit a two-run homer to put the Yellow Jackets ahead. And finally, holding that one-run advantage, he stripped his gear, moved to the mound and earned the save.

Faced with this preposterous display of all-around excellence, Matt Wieters' teammates handed him a nickname: God.

He could probably walk on water, too, they figured.

"I guess you could say they respected him," said longtime Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall.

Stories about Wieters, the No. 5 overall pick who signed for the largest bonus in Orioles history Wednesday, tend to follow the same lines. Teammates, coaches and family members say he's a quiet, dignified, analytical young man who knew he wanted to play baseball for a living and did what he had to at every juncture to reach that goal.

When the South Carolina native got a Nissan Frontier truck in college, he slapped a decal across the top of the windshield that reads, "Baseball is Life."

That's a fairly accurate summation of his 21 years, said his mother, Pam.

"He and his dad have done nothing but talk and play baseball since he could walk," she said. "If it's not a ball, he's not interested."

When he received toys for Christmas, the young Wieters would play with them for a few days and then set them aside to get back to sports. He began hitting balls off a tee as a toddler and, by adolescence, he could watch the Atlanta Braves with his dad and call the next pitch from Tom Glavine or Greg Maddux with uncanny accuracy.

He never had a serious girlfriend in high school. Most of his friends were teammates. Every coach, family member and friend asked to describe Wieters' personality started with "quiet."

"I like to have conversations," the Orioles draft pick said Thursday,"but I'm not someone who's going to go out and sing karaoke."

"But he'll talk your head off about baseball," said his father, Richard, a former minor league pitcher in the Braves and Chicago White Sox systems. "He's a baseball rat."

His college teammates may not have been far off with their nickname. Seasoned observers say that Wieters sometimes flows through games so naturally that he looks as if he may have created baseball.

"When you see him on the field, it just looks so easy for him," Richard Wieters said. "You just know it's what he's meant to do."

Wieters was so mature that he not only started at catcher as a freshman in high school but called every pitch. He started from Day One at Tech, where his combination of arm strength, catching acumen and power from both sides of the plate reminded Hall of past Yellow Jacket stars Jason Varitek and Mark Teixeira.

Orioles scout Dave Jennings considered watching Wieters a privilege. "You look at his size, the way he throws it, the power from both sides, you just don't see that," said the 16-year scout.

Wieters' parents and coaches said that beyond his physical talents, he ponders every scenario he faces and can't be pushed into decisions. It was Wieters, not his father nor agent Scott Boras, who decided how much money he'd give up to get on the field in the minutes before Wednesday night's signing deadline.

The day after, Boras said he was impressed that Wieters weighed all the factors without emotion and gave clear direction as to what he wanted.

"He has that Varitek quality, that ability to evaluate people and understand situations," the agent said.

Said Pam Wieters: "Even as a child, it was always like he had his own mind, his own purpose. And once he knew what he wanted to do, that was it."

Father knows best

Richard Wieters was a local legend around Charleston, S.C., where they still talk about the shots he hit as a star at The Citadel. The Braves drafted him in the fifth round, and he pitched five seasons in the minors, spending one under the guidance of a young coach named Leo Mazzone. He met his future wife through her brother, who also pitched in the Braves' system.

Richard Wieters moved on to an accounting career but still helped young pitchers around the Charleston suburb of Goose Creek, where he and Pam started a family. He didn't push Matt to focus on baseball, instead urging him to play all sports, from football to basketball to soccer.

But he did rely on his experience to steer his son toward catching and switch-hitting. "When I played, the two things they wanted and could never find enough of were guys who could switch-hit and guys who were willing to catch," he said. "So I figured if you put the two together, you'd have something."

Wieters called his father a huge baseball influence, saying, "He was the reason I picked up a ball when I was younger."

Pam Wieters, a high school teacher, noticed her son's analytical bent at an early age. When he first went out for soccer, he refused to enter a game until he'd stood on the sideline for a few moments and figured out the rules, movements and positions.

"Then, once he got in, you couldn't get him out," she said.

She was amazed at the things he'd see, a cap missing from the air stem on one of her tires or a slight change she'd made to the furniture arrangement if he'd been away for a few weeks.

"Who notices all these things?" she said. "But it has to be pretty useful for baseball, doesn't it?"

He was a homebody who enjoyed simple pleasures such as shooting hoops with his older sister, Rebecca, a three-sport star and future all-conference volleyball player at the College of Charleston. He loved it when he finally grew taller than her as a sophomore in high school.

Richard Wieters was helping coach at Stratford High when the head coach, John Chalus, got his first look at the next generation.

"Matt used to come out and shag flies," Chalus remembered. "He was very quiet, but you could see that he was already smart and experienced with the game."

Stratford regularly made the playoffs, but Wieters arrived in a wave of talent the likes of which the school had never seen. First baseman Justin Smoak, a year Wieters' junior, is projected as a possible No. 1 pick from the University of South Carolina next year. Several other teammates have excelled in college.

Nonetheless, Wieters stood out. During a scrimmage before his freshman season, Chalus let him call all the pitches.

"He did such a good job that I just said, 'It's yours,'" the coach remembered.

Later, the coaches congregated around Wieters on the bench to discuss the patterns of games.

"I think what people don't realize about him is how smart he is," Smoak said. "Once a pitcher had gone through the lineup one time, he'd know the holes in every hitter's swing. He was a great player in a lot of ways, but that really set him apart."

At bat, Wieters' power hadn't developed, but he already worked the count and rarely swung and missed. He didn't say much on the field, "but he wasn't intimidated," Chalus said.

In one game when Wieters was a sophomore, he snapped off two throws from his crouch that caught runners leaning too far off first base.

"Looks like you got yourself a catcher," the opposing coach told Chalus after the game.

"Yeah, and he's only a sophomore," Chalus replied.

"What?" the incredulous coach said.

Growing in stature

Beginning that year, Wieters sprouted from a large but pudgy kid to the strapping, 6-foot-5 specimen he is today. He grew so large that before his senior year, he asked Chalus to list him an inch shorter in game programs so scouts would still recruit him as a catcher.

The coach joked that he always let Wieters, the 6-foot-4 Smoak and a 6-foot-6 outfielder walk off the bus first so opponents felt they'd be facing the 1927 Yankees reincarnated.

"He was bigger than everybody, stronger than everybody and had more talent," Chalus said. "But he wasn't going to short you that talent. He worked at it, as well."

Wieters' parents bought a pitching machine for the house, and his mother remembered the hundreds of pings she'd hear as he honed his swing every weekend and many weekdays.

Wieters never became a boisterous leader, Chalus said, but younger teammates saw him as the model of baseball excellence. "They looked up to him," he remembered, "because when he was challenged, he was not afraid to say, 'This is the time when I have to get up there and get a hit.'"

His father hadn't given much thought to the boy's professional prospects until an amateur tournament in Atlanta before Wieters' senior year in high school. His fastball had topped out at 85 mph through most of high school, but his dad peeked at a radar gun that day and saw 95 mph.

"Oh, my gosh," he thought, foreshadowing what a Georgia Tech recruiter would say the same weekend.

As soon as that Tech assistant saw Wieters, he phoned Hall and said, "I found our catcher."

Wieters had idolized Varitek, the former Yellow Jacket and patriarch of switch-hitting catchers. And he felt comfortable with Georgia Tech's coaches and campus. So he was soon Atlanta bound.

Hall said he saw an unusual composure in the freshman and credited his athletic genealogy. "There's no question that helps you have a better understanding of how to compete, how to prepare," the coach said.

If Weiters drew confidence from his background, he never said much about it.

"If you get in a conversation with him, you're going to carry it," Hall said with a laugh.

"He's a clich? guy," said Richard Wieters, who admitted to teaching his son a familiar phrase or two. "When you talk to him, you'll hear every clich? in the book."

Wieters gave Baltimore reporters a preview during a conference call Thursday, saying he'd work hard and let everything else take care of itself. The quote could have come directly from the scene in Wieters' favorite baseball movie, Bull Durham, when "Crash" Davis counsels "Nuke" LaLoosh on speaking with the press.

That's just who he is, according to friends. Yellow Jackets third baseman Brad Feltes said Wieters stood out immediately on the field but never got cocky about it.

"He's a quiet guy, but once you get to know him, he opens up," Feltes said. "He's a guy who can go out, relax and have a great time but when it's time to get serious, he gets real serious."

The friends played cards constantly -- euchre when they were freshmen, spades and pinochle later on. Wieters preferred spades, Feltes recalled, "because that has the mental aspect to it, and he thinks he's good at that."

Over a game of chance, Wieters might boast and reveal a dry sense of humor that he rarely shows on the baseball field.

"We give everybody a hard time when they mess up," Feltes said. "And he's definitely a big part of that."

Wieters could back up his talk playing spades but not so much when playing Tiger Woods Golf on a video-game system. "He's definitely a better card player," Feltes said with a laugh.

Though he'd already wowed teammates, Wieters staged his national coming-out party as a sophomore, leading Georgia Tech to the College World Series. He amazed his dad during one two-week stretch when everything he did seemed near-perfect.

"Man, it's not that easy," Richard Wieters said. "But somehow, he just instinctively knows how to do the right thing the right way."

'A special guy'

He solidified his draft status on the elite Cape Cod summer circuit, zinging throws from behind the plate and thwacking pitches with the unfamiliar wooden bat.

As the nation's most highly touted college hitter entering last season, Wieters didn't see many fat pitches. Teammates and family grew frustrated for him as he failed to post the numbers some expected. But Wieters, showing the same mental toughness his mother had observed years before, refused to swing at the junk pitches. He knew how to play the game correctly and would not be lured into bad habits.

"I think he handled it incredibly well," Feltes said.

Hall heard concerns throughout Wieters' three seasons that he might be too big to stay at catcher. "But show me someone who can get down low like that, can throw like that and can hit for power from both sides of the plate," the coach said. "The answer is you can't."

Hall said Wieters doesn't hit as powerfully as Teixeira or lead as vocally as Varitek but added that he's quite comfortable comparing his latest star to those major league standouts.

"They're special guys, and Matt's a special guy," he said. "He has to go out and prove it, but he's a guy who I expect to be one of the best for a long time."

Jennings, the Orioles' scout, agreed. When asked Wieters' flaws, he paused for several moments. "I guess he's a little smoother hitting from the left side," he said. "But when I was filling out my report, I didn't have to go too deep on the weaknesses side."

Jennings said Teixeira remains the best hitter he has scouted, but Wieters plays a premium defensive position, so the scout said he'd rate the two similarly.

Some parents might fear a hard landing for a child faced with such expectations. But Richard Wieters said his son understands that entry into professional baseball rarely comes without difficult moments.

"If something is going wrong, he's not going to beat his head against the wall about it," he said. "He knows what the game is. He knows how to make adjustments."

If he needs company, his sister is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Maryland and plays volleyball in Baltimore on the weekends.

But Wieters has never given his family reason to worry, so they won't.

"He's known what he wanted to do for a long time," his mother said. "He's ready for this."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Matt Wieters

Age: 21

Height: 6 feet 5

Weight: 230 pounds

Hometown: Goose Creek, S.C.

Family: Father, Richard, pitched in minor leagues for Braves and White Sox; mother Pam; older sister Rebecca, a graduate student in history at the University of Maryland

College: Georgia Tech

Drafted: Fifth overall by Orioles

Honors: First-team All-ACC in 2005, 2007. Second-team All-ACC in 2006. First-team All-American by Rivals.com in 2007.

College hitting stats

Year HR RBI Avg.

2005 10 68 .366

2006 15 71 .355

2007 10 59 .358

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