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The Sarge Gets Shipped Out to the Bench

May 10, 1987|United Press International

CHICAGO — These aren't easy times for "The Sarge" since his demotion.

Gary Matthews currently rides the Chicago Cubs' bench, a part-time player who still believes he can play regularly for a major league club. Matthews has played in the All-Star game and World Series, yet his contributions are reduced to an occasional pinch-hitting appearance.

The former Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants outfielder is victim in part to the Cubs' youth movement and in part to his own knee problems which have slowed him in his 36th year.

"Well, I've started every year of my career as a starter with the exception of last year and it's not a great situation," Matthews says. "My stats were good last year. I hit more homers per at-bat than the regulars. Yet I'm on the bench."

Matthews has hit more than .300 three times in his career. He has hit more than 20 homers three times and has been one of the most consistent right-handed hitters in the National League over the past 15 years.

President-General Manager Dallas Green insists he has tried to trade Matthews to an American League club where Matthews' hitting skills could still be used as a designated hitter. So far, there have been no takers.

Matthews isn't the type of player to go public with a demand to be traded. He had an idea what to expect when the Cubs acquired free agent Andre Dawson in March, and the disappointment is clearly discernible.

"Well, you can't dwell if you are traded. The only time you worry about being traded is when no one wants you anymore," Matthews says. "I think there are clubs, even if they aren't the Cubs, that I can help."

Matthews underwent knee surgery in 1985 that limited his playing time to 97 games. That came after his banner year in 1984 when he helped lead the Cubs to their first flag of any kind in 39 years. He batted .291 with 14 homers and 82 RBI and was the club's leader both on and off the field.

On his three previous teams before joining the Cubs prior to the 1984 division winning season, Matthews was a popular player. He was wanted by a club needing a good right-handed hitter, and in addition they got a clubhouse leader.

"There's no question what the Sarge did in the clubhouse helped us win in 1984," says former Cy Young Award winner Rick Sutcliffe. "He didn't let us get down if we lost a tight game. He exhibited the kind of leadership you need on a winning club."

Matthews disputes critics who claim baseball is an individual game and that team leadership is overrated.

"You can't go through a 162-game schedule and not need the kind of leadership that certain players bring," Matthews said. "Motivation is crucial. Look at the teams that won last year. New York wouldn't be as good if Keith Hernandez isn't on the club. Look at Boston. They've got (Wade) Boggs and (Don) Baylor. Winning teams have leaders."

Dawson was acquired in part because of his leadership abilities in a Cubs' clubhouse that used to be patroled by The Sarge.

The same type of qualities that made Matthews, a career .282 hitter, a leader are helping him get through his bench time.

"It's a gift you acquire over a number of years," Matthews said. "The same thing is needed in leadership that is required in patience. Certain guys are counted on for particular jobs. Most of the time, it is the No. 3 hitter, something I've been throughout my major league career."

When Matthews broke in with the Giants' organization in 1969, he made a point to try to learn from the veterans on the club. As he was traded from one team to another, he said he picked up traits of the players he admired and tried to make himself a stronger individual.

"That's my point about leadership and what it has to offer. I think I can offer that to a lot of clubs, particularly ones with younger players," Matthews said. "I felt that way beginning in Little League and it's grown every year I've been playing baseball."

If Matthews' situation isn't rectified, he wants to get into managing eventually. Matthews, a 14-year veteran, would be willing to do what former teammate Larry Bowa did with San Diego; manage in the minors and wait for a break.

"It's in the back of my mind to manage. If I have to go to the minors, I'd do it but it depends upon how long they'd expect me to stay there," Matthews said.

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