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

October 20, 1987|SAM McMANIS | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — 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.

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