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Ex-Pitcher in Minors Tackles a New Sport : Fullerton's Matt Fitts Finds Niche on Football Field, Still Eyes the Pros

August 16, 1986|JIM McCURDIE | Times Staff Writer

There was a time when Matt Fitts thought his athletic future would depend on his ability to keep hitters off balance. Now, he's doing the hitting, and his aim is simply to knock people down.

In 1982, Fitts was playing for the New York Mets' rookie team in Kingsport, Tenn. He was part of a pitching rotation that included current major leaguers Dwight Gooden and Floyd Youmans.

In 1986, he's part of a Cal State Fullerton offensive line that includes Mark Stephenson and Joe Florentine.

Starting at offensive tackle, a 6-foot 4-inch, 270-pound sophomore from Lompoc High School and the Kingsport Mets--Matt Fitts. Who'd have figured it?

Not Fullerton Coach Gene Murphy. Murphy's search for large bodies to fill his offensive line hasn't necessarily been confined to football fields and film rooms. Murphy and Larry Manfull--the Titans' offensive line coach--aren't opposed to talking basketball players off the courts and into the weight room, where they build themselves into blocking behemoths. But this is the first time either can remember getting a tackle from a pitcher's mound.

From the center of attention to the middle of the trenches. Join us now as we retrace the athletic odyssey of Matt Fitts, a tackle who used to throw a pretty fair sinking fastball.

Fitts wanted to play pro baseball after he graduated from Lompoc in 1981. His father wanted him to go to college. A compromise was reached. Fitts' father said he could give baseball a try if the team that signed him put a clause in his contract that would provide him money for a college education. Those dads. Always thinking.

The Mets, who had selected Fitts in the 20th round of the amateur draft, agreed. He signed and was told to report to the club's rookie team in Kingsport, a member of the Appalachian League. He began boarding buses and chasing the baseball dream.

"It was depressing sometimes," Fitts said of life in the minor leagues. "You sleep a lot because there's nothing else to do. The league I was in wasn't quite as bad as some of the other leagues. I'd go to spring training and talk to the guys on the other teams and they'd tell me about 16-hour bus rides. Our longest bus ride was five hours, and it was only an 80-mile trip. It was this winding road through the mountains of Kentucky."

Much to his disappointment, Fitts was assigned to return to rookie ball in 1982. Back to Kingsport. Back to square one. But it was there that he crossed paths with Gooden. They became teammates and, later, friends.

"We talked a lot," Fitts said. "I remember one night, we were playing the (Baltimore) Orioles' organization. They were the No. 1 team . . . they were something like 18-1 at that point in the season. Dwight was pitching. He was warming up, and he said, 'Matt, I'm cuttin' loose tonight.'

"Nothing was under 93 miles an hour. He had 16 strikeouts. From then on, he took off."

Meanwhile, Fitts wasn't satisfied with the slow climb he was making through the Mets' organization. He began developing shoulder problems that took some of the fast out of his fastball. In 1983, he was released.

Fitts wasn't quite ready to walk away from baseball. He reported to the Kansas City Royals' spring training camp in 1984, hoping to earn a position on one of the team's minor league rosters. But the pain in his shoulder was worse. So were his pitches. The Royals released him. This time, he was ready.

"I figured my baseball career was over, and it was time to look for something else," he said.

He didn't have to look far. In 1983, Fitts had married his high school sweetheart, Ysabel. Her older brothers, Joe and Richard Aguilar, had both played nose guard for the Titans. Joe was the 1983 Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. Defensive Player of the Year and an honorable mention All-American.

During his off-season from baseball, Fitts went with his wife to a few Fullerton games to see Joe play.

"In high school, Joe was the top dog," Fitts said. "He was All-Everything. I had a lot of respect for the guy."

Fitts said Joe Aguilar persuaded him to give football a chance. He helped him through long workouts in the weight room. He encouraged him. And when the time came, he took him to Fullerton to introduce him to Murphy and tell the coach of Fitts' intention to make the Titans' roster as a walk-on in the fall of 1984.

Fitts began at Fullerton as a tight end, the position he had played in high school. The coaching staff decided he still had a little to learn and redshirted him. When he came out for spring practice last year, the coaches informed him they wanted to convert him to an interior lineman.

Last season, Fitts was something of an offensive line utility man for the Titans. Injuries to front-line players forced him to be prepared to fill in at tackle, center and both guard spots at various points in the season. This year, he appears to have found a home.

"He's gonna play this position come hell or high water," Murphy said. "We owe it to the kid. He's made himself the starting strong tackle."

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