Cardinals' Joker Is Not Quite So Wild : Once Mathews Got Semi-Serious About His Life, There Was No Stopping Him

Times Staff Writer

As near as Greg Mathews can recall, he never had a strong desire to play baseball as a kid. He lived in Anaheim, but rarely went to Angel games. Baseball was merely something Mathews did when the surf wasn't up or a party wasn't going down.

But over the last three years, a startling change has come over Mathews, a free-spirited guy who perpetuates the stereotype of kooky Californians. Mathews really can't explain how it all happened, but here he is, pitching in the World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Mathews is scheduled to pitch Game 4 Wednesday night against the Minnesota Twins. Although it obviously isn't known how long he will last, Mathews certainly figures to pitch longer in this World Series than his last one.

That would be the 1984 College World Series, when Mathews never made it out of the bullpen for Cal State Fullerton, which won the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. championship. Mathews, in fact, was such a nondescript pitcher then that he almost lost his scholarship.

"No, I wouldn't have predicted this," said Dave Snow, Mathews' college pitching coach. "He was about seventh on our staff that year."

More unlikely things than this have happened, but even Mathews is a little surprised at his rapid rise in the last three seasons. Mathews, 23, may not be the Cardinals' best pitcher, but he won 11 games this season and beat the San Francisco Giants in the opening game of the National League playoffs.

"I bet there were a lot of people back home who were surprised at that," Mathews said.

Those who have seen Mathews, then and now, must be taken aback by the startling evolution. They might even think that this must be another left-hander named Greg Mathews.

But no, this is the same guy. Mathews just has a different attitude.

His Cardinal teammates probably don't notice it, since he has always been hard-working, free-spirited and sort of flaky. As Times columnist Mike Downey recently noted, Mathews is Daffy Dean to teammate Joe Magrane's Dizzy.

A few people back in Orange County, however, remember a different Mathews, a youngster who was undisciplined, unmotivated and easily distracted. Though he did not lack talent in baseball or other sports, he never really developed it, either.

The problem, according to Mathews, was that he wasn't sure what he really wanted to do with his life. He would play baseball because other kids did, not because of any intense desire. He went surfing and played chess simply for fun.

"As a kid, I never dreamed about playing pro ball or anything like that," Mathews said. "I've played since I was real little, but I never had an idol or anything like that. It's kind of funny that I'd make it when all those guys who tried their whole life didn't."

One big difference was that Mathews had the talent to make it. "I remember one time, a long time ago, he told me he wanted to play in the big leagues," said Peter Acevedo, Mathews' stepfather for 22 years. "But I never heard much about it after that. He was always really good, but he just wanted to have fun."

Always, Mathews was one of the most talented kids on his block, picked near the top for sandlot games.

"I had three older sisters, and maybe that's a reason I wasn't really thinking about sports a lot," Mathews said. "I just knew I had talent. I'd pick things up easily. All sports. Nothing was that difficult."

His best childhood friend was Bob Caffrey, who lived up the block and was one reason Mathews chose to participate in sports.

Caffrey was the quarterback on the Savanna High football team, and he convinced Mathews to play football--"even though I was too small back then," Mathews said. During baseball season, Caffrey was the star catcher for Mathews, who had an 11-1 record.

Success in sports was predicted for Caffrey, though, not Mathews. "Those two lived a block away and they played on all the same sports teams," Acevedo said. "Everyone is surprised that (Caffrey) didn't make the big leagues.

"See, with Greg, he really didn't start to take it serious until college. Then, when he went to the minors and started having a family, he realized what baseball could do for him."

Major colleges did not actively recruit Mathews in high school, so he went to Santa Ana College for two years. He eventually was reunited with Caffrey, who was catching for Cal State Fullerton, in 1983.

Mathews had some arm troubles, was not used much as a junior and, by the end of his senior season, was the fifth starting pitcher on a team that used a four-man rotation. At that point, it seemed important that Mathews do something with that business administration degree he was pursuing.

Snow, Mathews' pitching coach at Fullerton and now the head coach at Loyola Marymount, was so disheartened with Mathews' lackadaisical attitude that he almost made him give up his scholarship. Instead, Snow gave Mathews an ultimatum during the summer between his junior and senior seasons.

"Let's just say I was concerned about his commitment to reaching his potential," Snow said. "I can remember sitting down at the end of the year and asking Greg if he really wanted to play. If not, I wanted him to transfer to another school or just give it up.

"He came back to me and said he was going to work harder, and he did. He built up his arm by using the Cybex machine and he improved his attitude. His junior year, his fastball was about at 80 (m.p.h.). By his senior year, it was in the high 80s. That's a big change in that short a time. But he still hadn't gotten the mental part down."

Mathews admits he was not exactly the most dedicated of players, but he also doesn't look back at that time with regrets. After all, Mathews was having a good time.

"I was really young," Mathews said. "I didn't understand the game. I didn't have any idea that I could play pro ball or anything.

"I matured after I got out of Fullerton. Physically, I had all the stuff. But I just wasn't into it. But after I got drafted and signed and got married (all in 1984), everything changed."

One change, Mathews said, was that he became a believing Christian and curbed his wild times. Another was the responsibility of supporting a wife and son, Tyler James, born in 1985.

"I started living a lot better life," Mathews said. "I stopped partying as much and started thinking about baseball a lot more. Before, I really didn't care that much. I'd play the game, then immediately think, 'Where can we go to have a good time.' I didn't realize what I was doing.

"My priorities are straightened out. After that, the game was simple."

St. Louis selected Mathews in the 10th round of the 1984 draft, which surprised Snow and others at Cal State Fullerton.

"Greg threw some outstanding games at the start of the season, and maybe that's what the scouts went by, because he didn't pitch much at all near the end," Snow said.

"Then, his velocity and consistency went down and we had to go with the guys who were going to win for us. No, I never thought he'd make it this far, but that's a credit to Greg. He did it on his own." Mathews swiftly went through the Cardinals' minor league system. He spent all of 1984 in rookie ball, then posted a 13-1 record with a 1.11 earned-run average in Jacksonville in 1985. That earned Mathews the big jump from Class A to Triple-A late that season.

Last season, Mathews logged a 3-3 record with a 2.58 ERA in Louisville and was promoted in late May. He won his major league debut, shutting out the Houston Astros for eight innings in a 3-1 victory. Mathews finished with 11 wins, second to Houston's Jim Deshaies for most wins that season by a National League rookie.

Mathews lost effectiveness early this season, prompting a return trip to Louisville. But his stay there was short and he returned to finish with season with an 11-11 record and a 3.73 ERA.

Even before his victory over San Francisco in Game 1 of the playoffs, Mathews firmly established himself as a quality pitcher and first-class flake among his Cardinal teammates.

There are plenty of Mathews tales to tell, and most of them became public after his high-profile victory over the Giants with full media saturation.

Teammates tell of the time Mathews' rental car stalled on a Los Angeles freeway before a game, and when he called the company to report the problem, he could not remember where he left it.

"That's all hype," Mathews said. "It isn't all true. It was (pitcher) Bill Dawley who stalled the car. I just happened to be with him. The guys are just trying to get on me. It's all in good fun, and I like it.

"OK, I know I'm the type of person who does some strange things. But other guys do some funny stuff, too."

Mathews sat in the Cardinals' dugout at Busch Stadium one day, looking at a swarm of reporters nearby and reflected on the turns life sometimes takes.

"Yes, sometimes I wonder (why he's in the majors) and other guys aren't," Mathews said. "Other pitchers at Fullerton were smarter and better and more serious about baseball.

"I just feel fortunate to be here."

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