SoxProspects News

May 6, 2014 at 8:30 AM

For Matt Spring, making the most out of a life in the minors


PORTLAND, Maine -- Matt Spring stepped into the box for his round of batting practice, his low-maintenance routine — a helmet adjustment here, a half-step there — preceding each cut through the cool spring air. On the last pitch, a mighty swing sent the ball soaring so high over the iconic 37-foot wall in left field it might have cleared a structure twice as high.

His target is the Maine Monster, not the Green Monster, and this is Portland, not Boston. The grass is not green and luscious, but flat and mostly dead after a brutal New England winter. The players are not millionaires, but youngsters trying to make a name for themselves or veterans holding on to their playing careers, or something in between.

“It might’ve been a little wind-aided today,” Spring said after spitting out a wad of chew and removing his helmet, revealing a receding hairline that hints he is no longer one of the up-and-coming youngsters. “Not that I haven’t done that plenty of times before. It’s a feeling that not many people in the world get to do, watch a ball fly 30 feet over a 30-, 40-foot fence. There are kids that would love to do that.”

Spring talks a lot about “the world” — about how it’s not fair, about how you have to deal with what it gives you. And through a certain lens that’s easy for him to say. Among the 7 billion-plus people who live here, Spring is downright extraordinary. Few people can hit a baseball 400 feet or throw one 127 feet, 3 3/8 inches in under two seconds, and even fewer can say they play ball for a living.

But in this world, a small subset of the real thing, Spring is just average. This is the world of minor league baseball.

It was Opening Day at Hadlock Field, home of the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, and for Spring, the team’s 29-year-old backup catcher, it was the 11th home opener of his professional career. Ten-plus seasons, eight different cities, more than 600 games — and not one moment in The Show to show for it.

“I still feel young. I wake up in the morning and say, ‘Man, I could go to the field today,’” Spring said. “It’s a blessing in my life. There are not a lot of guys that can say they got to play 10 full seasons. It’s really a blessing. I want to continue and keep having fun and see where it takes me.”

There is a very good, very real chance that it’s taken Spring as far as it is going to take him. He is, at best, the seventh catcher on the Red Sox’ organizational depth chart. Like a vast majority of professional ballplayers — living their lives far, far away from the limelight of the major leagues — Spring is a career minor leaguer, his prospect status long faded and his job security not even as solid as a series of one-year contracts might suggest.

Spring is a career .214 hitter. He’s struck out almost four times as often as he’s walked. He’s played all of five games at Triple-A, and he’s accepted his role as a reserve player and mentor to younger teammates, with Blake Swihart, the Red Sox’ 22-year-old catcher of the future in the eyes of many, calling him the captain of the Sea Dogs clubhouse.

The game has had a way of toying with his emotions, too, from demotions to meeting his wife to lack of playing time to the birth of his son to a career that inherently limits his time with that son. Sometimes that makes Spring, 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, cry.

“It’s just something that you have to embrace or the game will push you aside,” Spring said. “This game will wear you down if you let it.”

***

For a long time, Spring wore baseball down. Well, baseballs — plural, as in the tangible, tightly wound rubber-covered corks Spring made a habit of pulverizing as an amateur.
He showed up at Cactus High in his hometown of Glendale, Ariz., as a scrawny, squeaky-voiced 14-year-old late in the summer of ’99. He left as one of the best Cobras ever.

Mike Tirella, the Cactus coach at the time, remembers Spring well — he mashed, and was a great kid to boot. Tirella throws around phrases like “totally selfless” and “amazing human being” when talking about his old player.

The stories are many and readily recalled. During Spring’s first game behind the plate, midway through his junior season, he gunned down the fastest baserunner in the state. Spring’s parents bought him a Jeep when he turned 16, but the job he got to help pay for it cut too much into baseball time, so he sold it and rode a bike to school. As a class project senior year, he drew up floor plans for state-of-the-art baseball and softball locker rooms and concession stands. Spring told Tirella he’d come back and fund the construction when he made it big.

Spring’s good player-better person reputation followed him to Dixie State College in St. George, Utah, where he helped the Rebels to the JUCO national title as a freshman in 2004. During one at-bat in that series, against Seminole State righty Bryant Beaver, Spring took a high-90s fastball up and in. Most people would be rattled. Not Spring. As then-Dixie State coach Mike Littlewood remembers it, Spring sent the next pitch 500 feet to left-center.

“If you played against him you’d hate him, and if he was on your team you’d love him,” said Littlewood, now the bench boss at Brigham Young University. “Every time he went up to the plate, he thought he was going to hit a gapper or a home run.”

Days later, when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays selected Spring way higher than he expected (fourth round) and he signed for way more money than he expected ($350,000) in the 2004 MLB Draft, he made it to a quiet New York City suburb in time to join the Hudson Valley Renegades for Opening Day.

Spring’s first hit was a home run. He doubled his next at-bat. “I was like, ‘Alright, here we go. This is no problem,’” Spring recalled.

Hudson Valley is Short-Season A-ball — one of the lowest rungs on the minor league ladder. He spent two and a half seasons there.

“The game has its way of humbling you,” Spring said. “I had a decent season. I was awful behind the plate. I think I had a game where I was 0-for-5, five strikeouts and eight stolen bases off of me. It was dreadful. I was like, ‘Man, this might not be for me.’”

***

Before the Devil Rays turned into the Rays and before they cut Spring loose and before he signed with the Red Sox in March 2011, Spring was sent to Low A Columbus to begin his fourth professional season, an upsetting and surprising scenario. And then he met his wife.

Matt and Meredith Spring married in 2009, and they have an 18-month-old son, Bo. Meredith and Bo live in Columbus, Ga., near her family and visit Matt in Portland about once a month.

“Oh, it’s tough. I like to play the macho card, but when I left for spring training I was a mess,” Spring said. “I probably cried hard for a half-hour.”

How many lonely nights Spring has left in him remains to be seen. He says he’ll play as long as he can, as long as someone wants him, and putting on a major league uniform is still the dream. “I wouldn’t be playing if I didn’t think I could still play in the big leagues,” he said.

But sometimes Spring speaks in ambiguous terms, even slipping into the past tense about that ultimate dream.

“Nothing’s going to be guaranteed with me.”

“The game’s not fair. Life’s not fair.”

“I don’t have any regrets in my career. Obviously I’d loved to have played in the big leagues.”

“You’re trying to continue to build a resume for whatever may come next.”

Everything Spring does — his Eastern League All-Star season last year, for example — is an audition for his next role. He doesn’t know what role he’ll fill, or where he’ll fill it, but he knows he wants it to be in baseball.

“People say it all of the time: You’re not just playing for your team, you’re playing for the 29 other teams, too,” Spring said.

Tirella can’t imagine Spring away from the field. Littlewood said Spring has the background to be a scout or some sort of talent evaluator, since he’s a good talker and could do well chatting up kids and their parents. He’d make a good coach, too, if he wanted.

But Spring tries not to think about that stage. He’s still a player, even if not an everyday one, and thinking about anything but the present would only hamper what he’s trying to do right now. Because the game will wear you down if you let it.

“Learning that baseball doesn’t define who you are is a tough thing to learn,” Spring said. “I’ve poured a lot of my heart and soul into the game, and I think the game rewards people for doing that.”

Tim Healey is a feature writer for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @timbhealey.

Photo Credit: Matt Spring by Kelly O'Connor.

 
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