Griffin: Blue Jays catcher Jeff Mathis touched by the Angels
ANAHEIM-The Blue Jays' 29-year-old backup receiver Jeff Mathis has been an Angel for most of his career. He was with that team in the other dugout all of his first decade as a pro, selected by the Angels in the first round of the June '01 draft. He remained with them until an off-season trade to the Jays last December 3.
As such, everything about Angels Stadium was familiar – except the visitors clubhouse where he found himself Monday, prior to the opener of this four-game weekend series.
“It was a little weird coming back, going into the other clubhouse, but it was good to see the guys,” Mathis said of his very visible on-field reunion on Thursday with former mates. “I was in this clubhouse one time before. I actually came in here for a workout before we went to Taiwan last year in the offseason.”
Mathis had emerged from the Jays' dugout early in the afternoon, in hisnew Blue Jays shorts and a gray tee, exchanging new hugs and old war stories with a group of old Angels friends on the field for early batting practice.
Angels' manager Mike Scioscia eventually joined the group, much more formally shaking hands with his former catcher, a big slap on the shoulder replacing a hug.
There had been rumours from Angel insiders just after the trade was made to the Jays last winter that the relationship between the two men had been a tough-love one because of the fact Scioscia himself had been a hard-nosed catcher with great expectations of Mathis. The thought was that perhaps a career average below .200 and an inability to ever nail down a starting role in Anaheim had frustrated the manager.
“Maybe a little, but there's a lot of advantages to it too,” Mathis said when asked about any difficulty playing for a manager that had been an all-star catcher.
“There's a lot of ins and outs and his attention to detail to things it was pretty cool. We were close, we were together for a long time and he taught me a lot. I learned a lot of what I do behind the plate from him and I owe him a lot.”
Mathis was a frustrating player for Angels fans to root for over his seven years. He was a bane to new-wave stats. His career .194 batting average and paltry .557 OPS in 426 career games made him one of the least productive offensive players in baseball.
Mathis showed flashes of brilliance, of what could be, in the '09 post-season, with eight hits and five doubles in 15 at-bats. There was no carryover to that success. But through all those times, good or bad, Scioscia stayed with him, to make him the best he could be.
“Anytime we were on the field whether it was Spring Training or batting practice, he was always teaching,” Mathis recalled. “His attention to detail, and doing everything the right way, you respect him for that and his consistency with that was what sticks out for me.”
Perhaps all Mathis really needed was a change of scenery after all those struggling offensive years in SoCal dressed in red. Perhaps all he needed was to be in this new role, the one he is in with the Jays as a once-a-week starter and wizened mentor to an emerging young star in J.P. Arencibia. The sample is still small and the jury is still out.
But in his first seven games with the Jays, Mathis is batting .294, with two doubles, two homers, four walks and a 1.193 OPS. He will likely catch one game this weekend vs. his former team. It's always difficult to separate yourself emotionally from players you battled shoulder-to-shoulder with for 11 years. As such, Mathis could not help on Wednesday but find himself caught up in Jered Weaver's successful bid for a no-hitter. He caught up with it as the Jays' charter flight touched down, just up the road at Los Angeles International.
“That was pretty fun to watch,” Mathis admitted. “Anytime you put up that many zeroes and then you put up a zero in the hit column too, that's pretty special.
“When we landed, I pulled it up on the internet, and it was like the sixth inning and I saw he got through that and I was like, oh dang. Then we drove from LAX and got to the hotel in the bottom of the eighth so I went upstairs and came back down to see it.”
Mathis admits it was nice to come home for the first time, but when he finally steps into the batter's box wearing blue, not red, those feelings will disappear. He's a Blue Jay now.