Gary Matthews came to the Cubs in a trade before the 1984 season. His addition to the club was one of the main reasons the team made it to the postseason for the first time since 1945. Matthews, a natural born leader, showed the team how to win. An aggressive hitter with a keen eye, Matthews knew when to attack and when to take a pitch. As the Cubs’ batting coach, he has a lot of wisdom to impart to his pupils. Whether they listen or not is another matter.
The Heckler: When you played, did you adjust your approach at bat depending on the situation in the game?
Gary Matthews: No. I might alter my approach if the situation called for me getting the runner over, but I wouldn’t change my batting stance or what I was trying to do. I’m looking to get a pitch to try to drive with up to two strikes but after that, I would try to hit the ball.
TH: In 1984, you were up 2-0 on San Diego, and then you were 2-2 going into the final game. What was the team’s mindset at that time?
GM: Good. We thought we were going to win, obviously you can’t think you’re not going to win after being up 2-0. We felt strong about it, even when it was 2-2. We were up that game, but it just wasn’t in the cards.
TH: Was losing that series your biggest disappointment in baseball, and how did that compare to the team losing last year in the playoffs?
GM: It was bad last year and the comparison would be similar, because we were up 3-1 and only needed one game, and we were up 2-0 needing one game in 1984. The similarities were the same and the outcome was the same, so to me, I had the same feeling as I had in ’84.
TH: How would you compare the current Cubs team to the one you played on in 1984?
GM: I don’t think you can. It’s different players, different times, different pitchers and different athletes, so the only comparison would be when you ended up taking first and losing like we did.
TH: The 1985 team you played on experienced a rash of injuries just like this years team. Both teams were heavy favorites going into the season. Do you put any validity into the alleged curse on the club?
GM: I don’t believe in curses. It’s not valid. It has nothing to do with the course of 162 ball games. The good teams are going to win, and the so-so teams are going to fall to the side. It’s always been that way.
TH: You have a lot of veteran hitters on this team. Do you normally approach them to work on things or do you let them come to you?
GM: They’re professionals. They have a program they go through every day. They go over the films. They’re looking at the pitcher that’s pitching the game today. They develop a game plan of what they want to do, of what his best pitch is. Then it’s a matter of going up and trying to execute.
TH: There are a lot of free-swingers on this team. Would you be overstepping your bounds to sometimes tell a player to cut down on their swing a bit and try to meet the ball and go with the pitch?
GM: I don’t want to take away…You’ve got to work with whatever player you have and their abilities. If guys aren’t able to do that, just like some guys aren’t able to bunt, you don’t ask guys to do things that they can’t. Again, this is why we do look over the films, and we go over the pitcher that is pitching that day. We talk to the advance scout who has seen him the start before and knows what his best pitch will be. You go out and you try to execute the things that you need to. It can be a little bit more difficult on this level because you can have a good game plan and the pitcher has his best stuff of the year like Milton (Eric) did when we faced them in Philadelphia. It depends as well on the umpire. If you’re supposed to lay off the high pitch and he’s calling it, then you have to throw that game plan out and start swinging at that pitch that is up.
TH: The team has gone through a few prolonged hitting slumps this year. As the hitting coach, what can you do to help them get out of it?
GM: There’s not one magical thing you can do other than you go out and you work and you try to do better the next day. I will say you win as a team and you lose as a team. It doesn’t matter whether it’s from the hitting standpoint, or the defense or the base running or the pitching. And until you get those things running on all facets, it’s difficult to win on a consistent basis.
TH: Sammy Sosa is a superstar and a future first ballot Hall of Famer. He’s had a tough go of it this year. Do you approach him, does he seek you out, or does he just have his own routine?
GM: We work with Sammy every day in the cage. We go over different things to try to make him a better player and to feel more comfortable at the plate. Again, when he’s hit the home runs that he has, there are things that he wants to do himself, and so be it. We’ll tell him to keep his shoulder in, or he’s coming off of the ball, or he’s not able to reach the ball outside, and then it’s up to him to make the adjustment.
TH: In his most successful seasons, he went with the pitch and hit a lot of home runs to right field. Would you like him to go with the pitch more?
GM: I would like for him to make more solid contact. If they’re pitching him in, he can’t hit the ball out to right field. I just want him to have more quality at-bats, because if you have that, good things are going to happen.
TH: Many times the hitting coach is the scapegoat if a team is not hitting, and everybody says fire the hitting coach. How much effect do you think a hitting coach really has on players, and what do you think the traits are of a good hitting coach?
GM: You have to be able to get along with your players. In most cases, you’ve got to have players that have had success. They have to believe in you. If they do, they’ll do the things that they need to do. Too many times, the hitting coach takes too much credit, and also too much blame, because it’s the individual that’s up at the plate that’s doing the job.
TH: Who was the best hitting coach you played under?
GM: Billy Williams helped me out quite a bit, but then you have to have the aptitude if he tells you different things, that you are able to do it. In my day, a lot of times, we didn’t have a lot of the hitting coaches. We would take extra BP, we would do our drills, and we would have guys doing some of the little things when things were going bad to make the team win.
TH: You retired in 1987 before the era of hitting really exploded in the ’90s. How would you compare the hitters today to when you played?
GM: I don’t think you can compare. You play when you play and you have the stats that you have. One of the reasons that the stats have been so productive over the years is because the ballparks are so much smaller as well. I think you have to take that into consideration.
TH: When you played, it seemed players were more apt to do those little things you mentioned like moving runners along, bunting, and doing whatever it took to get a run in. Do you think that’s something that’s gone from baseball now?
GM: No. A lot of the teams still do it and a lot of the good teams still do it. Again, it depends on what players you have on your team.
TH: Do you think the current team you have is built to play that type of baseball?
GM: When you’re playing poker, you play the cards that you’re dealt. A lot has to do with contracts, and the guys still under contract and the no trade clauses. We have a good quality team, and I can’t think of any other guys that we want on our team right now. We’ll see what develops and what happens towards the end.
TH: So far this year, the team has never really had a sustained period of playing really good baseball. What do you think has been the problem?
GM: That’s not a question that I can answer. I just go out and try to do the best I can with the hitters that I have. That would be more of a question for Jim Hendry or Dusty Baker.
TH: With the season winding down, do you think they can get in a groove to finish out the year?
GM: I really don’t think we’ve been in a hot streak the way that we can. A lot of times when guys are hitting the ball hard, for instance the way Moises Alou did last month in San Francisco, all those balls that he hit were caught. Those don’t show up in the box score. So they’ll say he’s not hitting the ball, and he didn’t come out with many hits, but he hit the ball extremely hard in every game that he played in. I think too many times, media people go on stats. The name of the game is victories. It’s simple. If you’re winning, nobody says anything about how many home runs you hit or how many times you’re striking out. When you’re losing, it becomes magnified, and the small things that you would do that would enable you to win those ball games, before it’s all said and done, you will do those things. We’re missing Hollingsworth; we missed Sammy early on. Our closer also went down along with Prior and Woody, so I think we’re doing pretty good to be where we are right now.