The New Frontier

Jun 2, 1999 at 4:00 am
Most casual baseball fans in town will remember Greg Mathews as a promising young hurler for the St. Louis Cardinals in the mid-1980s. Unfortunately, there's been a scad of Cards pitching prospects who've lost the better parts of their careers to injury in the last two decades, a list that moves from John Fulgham and Andy Rincon right on through to Alan Benes and Matt Morris. Mathews' career could have been a special one; as it stands in retrospect, it was full of promise, with flashes of brilliance when health was his ally rather than enemy.

Mathews had well more than a cup of coffee with the Redbirds, appearing in dozens of games over five seasons with the ballclub. His best days came with an 11-11 mark and an appearance in the World Series with the 1987 National League championship club, after winning the team's rookie-of-the-year award with an 11-8 tally in 1986. But arm troubles came on strong by 1988, and Mathews eventually moved on to Philadelphia after missing virtually two complete seasons. The lefthander called it a career there, finishing with a 2-3 mark in Philly in 1992.

Numbers, though, only tell part of a story. Just the fact that he cracked a major-league roster is impressive when you tote up the number of players who fall by the wayside -- in Pony leagues, Legion ball, the high-school and college ranks, and the minor leagues.

Mathews' major-league pedigree has given him a good start in the business that he's been attending to for the better part of the 1990s. The Greg Matthews Training Center in St. Peters -- along with a host of affiliated summer camps -- calls on ex-major leaguers such as Stan Royer, Scott Terry, Tom Lawless, Ken Reitz, Pat Perry and Curt Ford to offer individualized instruction for kids from all over the metro area. Mathews has become a respected teacher, with a light touch to which kids respond.

This spring Mathews is taking his pitching-instruction concepts up a level -- or two, or three -- working as the pitching coach for the River City Rascals, the new Frontier League squad in St. Charles.

"It's simpler," he says of working with older players. "They have a lot of talent. A lot of my younger guys are learning. It's more fun to get into the finer aspects of pitching, then getting into the mental part. A lot of the guys are physically strong -- I like that. A couple just need to find adjustments in mechanics."

The Rascals are part of an independent league that's unaffiliated with the major leagues in any way. The players are at the rookie-league or "low single-A" level, according to Mathews, with a good number of players having some minor-league experience. Although reached last week during the team's tryout camps, Mathews already appeared to know the basic composition of his 10-man pitching staff; the players' names, however, were still unavailable at press time.

"Of the 10 pitchers, six were from (major-league) organizations, four of them from colleges," Mathews says. "Three were from the Cardinal organization. I knew of them. I think it was fairly easy to identify them. I thought it would be more difficult. We started with 24 pitchers, needing to get down to 10. What we're going to do is go with a lefty closer and one right-handed closer. The other three in the bullpen will be setup men, long relievers. The five starters are really strong. I'm pretty pleased with what I've got. It's more than I anticipated.

"No player has played above single-A, and you can't have any more than two-plus years of professional experience. I've seen some talent. There are some guys who can play, and I anticipate losing some of them to affiliated teams. We have a very, very good pitching staff. It should be our strength.

He says that the guys with some pro experience "were released for a variety of reasons. You try to teach them the little things. Composure. Pitch selection. How to work a batter. How not to overthrow. See what a hitter is looking for, what he likes, high or low. Be smart. Learn to use the fielders. These guys are talented enough -- someone just has to show them. A lot of times, it's a numbers game. They're on the bottom of the totem pole, no one worked with them. It could be something small."

The possibility for a look-see by affiliated minor-league teams is a key component driving all these players. "If they're getting everybody out, they can go back to another organization," says Mathews. "If we can provide a chance to a majority of our players, then we'll continue to get better players."

The process of cutting was something that Mathews didn't have to go through with the players, instead handing over evaluations to manager Jack Clark, the former Cardinal slugger, who's heading into his first season as a manager at any level. (Former big-league infielder Dick Schofield serves as the team's other coach.) "I think it's difficult for Jack," says Mathews. "Jack does the dirty work. It's the first time he's had to do that. We want everyone to do well. But there's a reality. They all come from different organizations -- they know what it's about. All they want is a shot, four days to prove themselves. To some, they're just going to have to tip their cap to the better players."

Once the team is set, it'll be a 24-man roster. The Rascals will play 82 games across a broad swath of the Midwest. Though doubleheaders aren't part of the picture, there are few days off. For those who crack the lineup, it's a full minor-league experience, day-in and day-out.

The charming parts of the minor-league vibe certainly are what the team's attempting to sell. For months, Ken Wilson (the voice of the St. Louis Blues and the lead investor in the team) has been pitching the squad with an endless buy of advertising on local sports radio, which calls the Rascals' new stadium "the best little ballpark in America." Certainly, the old-fashioned vision of the game -- even if it's taking part in a brand-new park -- is the primary hook. Ticket sales have reportedly been brisk and the novelty factor will clearly be on the team's side, at least for the first season. After this year's honeymoon, however, there will be plenty of competition for the dollar. Minor-league hockey and basketball also debut soon in St. Charles, and another Frontier League team begins play next year in Illinois' St. Clair County, offering a natural and desired rivalry for the Rascals. But Mathews suggests that winning will be the main way of getting fans back to the park after the novelty wears off.

His formula: "Overall, good fundamental baseball. Play good defense. Keep errors down. Get to the setup men and closers with a lead. We feel comfortable getting our pitching staff a lead."

Spoken like a true coach. Greg Mathews has made the transition.

The River City Rascals play their inaugural home game at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 8, against the Dubois County Dragons at T.R. Hughes Ballpark, 900 Ozzie Smith Dr., O'Fallon, Mo. Call 240-BATS.

-- Thomas Crone