By David Driver
Matt Watson remembers calling his parents in Lancaster, Pa., during the summer of 1999. He had just been selected in the 16th round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Montreal Expos following his junior season at Xavier and was one week into his professional career. He appeared in just one game with Vermont in the New York-Penn League, was making about $850 per month—before taxes—and was doubting his choice to not return to Xavier for his senior year.
“I called home and wondered if this was the right decision,” he says. “Here I was, a backup in low Class A.”
Comforted by the phone call, he stayed, and it didn’t take long before he got his break. Or breaks, actually. Two of his teammates got hurt in the same game, and suddenly Watson found himself in the lineup every day. And playing well. So well, in fact, he led the league in batting average (.380) and hits (108), was named to the all-star team and even led the entire Expos farm system in batting.
It was the beginning of a career that has, so far, lasted 10 years and taken him to Mexico, Australia, the Dominican Republic and even Japan in search of a game. It has also taken him twice into the major leagues—first for 15 games with the New York Mets in 2003 and then 19 games for the Oakland A’s in 2005—making him the only Xavier player to make it into the majors. (NOTE: Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning actually played basketball at Xavier, not baseball. However, James J. Boyle, a 1926 graduate, played part of one season for the New York Giants. A catcher, he appeared in just one inning of one game. He has the distinction, though, of being the only player to play in the major leagues without ever playing in the minor leagues, going straight from Xavier to the majors and then retiring at the end of the season. For a story about Boyle, see the April 17, 2006, article by Steve Rushin in Sports Illustrated.)
“I enjoy it,” Watson said of that label. “It would be nice if there were some more. There are a lot of good ballplayers that have come through Xavier. It was always a dream of mine to make the major leagues and Xavier helped me get there. In hindsight, I was in a much better position going to college after high school than the minors. College let me grow.”
Watson, who was drafted by the Chicago White Sox out of high school, decided to play college ball instead of going pro, coming to Xavier and taking the team by storm, starting his freshman year and hitting third in the batting order—a prominent place for a freshman. But he was there for good reason: He could hit. Watson still ranks fifth at Xavier in career batting average (.363) and fourth in homers in a season with 14.
And it’s his hitting that’s kept him at the ballpark for the last decade—including his current team, the Syracuse Chiefs, the Class AAA farm team of the Toronto Blue Jays.
“He is a very good hitter. He works his butt off on his craft,” says Tony LaCava, the Blue Jays’ assistant general manager for player personnel. “He has been very good for us this year. He is a total professional. He plays the game the right way.”
“He is still a very serviceable left-handed hitter,” says Syracuse manager Doug Davis. “He is one of the team leaders here. He is a really, really good guy for the young players.”
Watson signed with Syracuse after returning from Japan, where he spent parts of the previous two seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines in the top Japanese league. He headed overseas after hitting better than .300 for three straight seasons with the Sacramento River Cats, the top farm team of the Oakland A’s.
“A lot of guys get stuck in Triple A,” he says. “You can make some good money and reinvent yourself in Japan. The pitchers there are better than Triple A. They have good control. They are not afraid to throw change-ups.”
Watson lived in Japan with his wife, Nicole, and their two young children. “We kind of soaked in the culture. Our neighbors had two young boys who spoke English.” There, he hit .274 in 2006 and .203 in limited duty last season. He pulled a muscle during spring training in 2007 and also battled allergy problems there.
He had options to play with other teams in Japan and Korea in 2008 but decided it was time to return to North America for perhaps one last shot at the majors.
“That is a reasonable goal,” LaCava said. “It is just a matter of timing.”
Even if he does not get back to the majors, Watson says, he hopes to play pro ball several more years. “It beats working,” he says.
That’s a message he’s constantly reminded of when he hears from his father, Rocky.
“My dad just retired after about 30 years with a freight company,” he says. “He would put in 12-hour shifts as a supervisor, so he tells me, ‘I don’t want to hear about when you go 0-for-4.’ ”