Profile by BCB reader Molechaser (with additions by Al)
Most people reading this will immediately associate the phrase "Gary Matthews" with the phrase "ineffectual and incompetent hitting and first base coach under Dusty Baker." But, long before Sarge was brought in to rid Cubs players of any hitting knowledge they possessed, he was actually a fairly decent player for the club, and much beloved. He played less than four seasons for the Cubs in the course of a 15-year career, but those four seasons included arguably his best season, which just happened to coincide with one of the Cubs' best years of the twentieth century.
Born July 5, 1950 in San Fernando, California, Gary Nathaniel Matthews was drafted by the Giants as their first-round pick (17th overall) in the 1968 draft out of high school. Three years later he was in the major leagues, another in the long line of "successors" to Willie Mays. Of course, no one could match the matchless Mays, but Matthews was a solid contributor for six seasons in San Francisco before becoming one of the first free agents to change teams, signing with the Braves after the 1976 season -- but not after some indiscreet words from Braves owner Ted Turner about his interest in Matthews cost Turner a year's suspension as owner for "tampering".
Matthews had several more solid seasons in Atlanta and then in Philadelphia, becoming an important part of the Phillies' NL championship team in 1983, before Dallas Green, who had managed him in Philly in 1981, acquired him and Bob Dernier only a week before the 1984 season started, in exchange for Bill Campbell and Mike Diaz -- one of the best deals Green made in his tenure as Cubs GM.
Cubs fans who came of age in the 1980's, as I did, universally look to the 1984 season as the zenith--and frequently the genesis--of our infatuation with the Cubs. 1984 was the Cubs' first winning season in my lifetime. It was my first taste of a team going to the postseason. My grandfather, a rabid Cubs fan since his childhood before the First World War, followed the Cubs religiously until he passed away midway through the glorious 1984 season, and the Cubs' run through the season and heartbreak in the playoffs probably meant as much to me that year as did his death. Long before Michael Jordan dominated the NBA, a year and a half before the Bears charmed Chicago with the Super Bowl Shuffle, the 1984 Cubs provided a generation of Chicago sports fans with their heroes. Of course, we all loved Ryne Sandberg most (just as we loved Michael Jordan the most eight years later), but all the members of the 1984 team are near and dear to the hearts of Cubs fans of a certain age.
Gary Matthews's 1984 season was a stunning outburst from a player who had until that point been a very good -- but not great -- outfielder. He led the league in walks, on-base percentage, and sacrifice flies, and he was fifth in runs scored. At the end of the year, he ranked fifth in the National League MVP voting, even though he, Sandberg, and Rick Sutcliffe split the Cubs vote (both Sandberg and Sutcliffe finished ahead of Matthews in the voting). In 1984, Sarge scored more runs than Bob Dernier (in fewer at-bats), had more hits than either Keith Moreland or Jody Davis, and nearly double the number of walks of any other batter on the team. The "Sarge" nickname came from his habit, developed early in the '84 season, of saluting the legions of LF bleacher fans who would cheer his every appearance in the outfield. In August, he arranged for caps with "sergeant stripes" and his name to be distributed to all bleacher fans.
In the playoffs, Sarge's great year continued. He only batted .200 in the NLCS, but his three hits included two home runs, he scored four runs in the five games and had five RBI, and he walked six times (against four strikeouts). His on-base percentage was higher than that of any Cub except Sandberg, and his slugging percentage was higher than anyone's except Davis. Ultimately, of course, it wasn't enough, but, for one fantastic season, Gary Matthews provided everything we could have asked for in a player, and that's why he ranks as high as he does on this list -- as a key contributor to a Cubs playoff team, and for his personal popularity.
And that was it, unfortunately. Injured in 1985, he played in only 97 games, his numbers precipitiously declining, and at age 35 he appeared just about done. He did recover a bit in 1986 to put up a .259/.361/.478 line, but the team floundered again, and he was relegated to the bench at the beginning of the 1987 season, doing nothing other than pinch-hitting in 44 games, and on July 11 he was traded to the Mariners for a PTBNL, who turned out to be a minor leaguer (Dave Hartnett) who never made it.
It's odd that Matthews became such a feckless, hack-a-matic hitting coach, because as a player he was a patient hitter; he had a .364 lifetime OBA and the 103 walks he drew in 1984 were, at the time, the most any Cub had drawn in a season since the 116 Richie Ashburn had in 1960, and only the second time ANY Cub had walked 100 times in a season since 1930. It still ranks eighth on the all-time Cub single season list.
[Note from Al: this ranking, which may seem high to some of you, is based less on pure statistical accomplishments, and more on what Matthews and his exuberant enthusiasm meant to the first Cub postseason team in 39 years.]