by Daniel Dunaief
Like other Ward Melville High School students who graduated last year, Steve Matz left his home in Stony Brook and took the next step in his life. Living in a hotel in Florida, Matz has changed locales, but hasn’t altered his intense focus on a skill that helped the 6 foot, 2 inch stand out on Long Island.
One of the newest members of the New York Mets, Matz, a lifelong Mets fan, is living within easy walking distance of minor league fields where promising players come to soak up guidance from wizened coaches, hone their already-prolific skills, and prepare for the intense competition to join their major league team.
So far so good for Matz, who knows he has a long climb to the mound at Citi Field, but who is already thrilled to be taking the first few steps toward that goal.
“Compared to Ward Melville, this blows it away,” Matz said of his first few weeks at the Mets minor league complex. “The grass and the mound are perfect.”
A left-handed pitcher whose fastball has been clocked at 95 miles per hour, Matz is working to improve his other pitches, including a curveball and changeup.
“The curveball [is a pitch that I] still have to work on,” Matz offered. “It’s a learning curve. I used to throw in the bullpen to keep my arm loose: now, I throw to work on things.”
For Steve’s parents Lori and Ron Matz, this is an especially big year. Not only is Steve living away from home with the Mets, but their older son Jon is also attending school away from Long Island.
Lori Matz said it was tough to “lose a little bit of that control with both of them gone. That’s what we raised them for, to be independent, well-rounded adults.”
At the beginning of spring training, Steve offered to make the 19-hour drive down to Port St. Lucie by himself in his new Ford truck he purchased with his signing bonus, but his parents would have no part of that. After they drove to Florida together, Steve’s parents felt encouraged by the discipline and structure in the minor league system. Some of the rules include fines for being out after curfew.
“It’s almost a little more regimented than on a college campus,” Lori Matz said.
Steve’s passion for baseball started when he was young.
“When Steve was 2 years old, I started having a catch with him,” Ron Matz said. The elder Matz could tell even then that his middle child — Steve has a 14-year-old sister Jill — had talent. “He had a natural form. You can’t teach that.”
Ron Matz coached his son Steve until he was about 13 years old. When Steve was around 10, he pitched a no-hitter. When he got in the car after the game, he was annoyed.
“I said, ‘Steve, you just finished a no-hitter, what’s the matter?” Ron recalled.
His son’s response? “I struck out once.”
Steve’s skills and interest grew in tandem. Ron Matz said that he’d have to drag his son out of bed on a Saturday morning if he had to take an SAT prep course, but if he had a practice or a game, “he’d be sitting in the den, waiting for me before I got up.”
Steve’s parents said his average grade at Ward Melville was around 90. He was motivated to maintain good grades so that he could keep the door open for school or professional baseball.
When their son was drafted first by the Mets last year, it was especially exciting to Ron and Lori, lifelong Mets fans who were high school sweethearts. Indeed, Lori Matz spoke by phone to The Village Times Herald minutes before a rain-delayed Mets game began. Lori said for the last year she has worn her late mother’s wedding ring on her pinky. Her mother, who passed away six years ago, was “a huge Mets fan and a huge Steve fan. I almost feel like, for him to be picked out of the thirty teams, she had a hand in it.”
For Steve’s parents, the journey to the minor leagues has already provided a wealth of new baseball experiences. On the day Steve signed his contract, the Mets brought him to Citi Field. He and his parents were escorted to owner Fred Wilpon’s office.
“We took this beautiful elevator to Wilpon’s suite,” Ron Matz said. “Fred comes up to us and says, ‘I want you to meet a friend of mine. Meet Sandy Koufax. Our legs were shaking. I was like, ‘hey, this isn’t happening.’”
Last year’s winner of the Carl Yastrzemski award — an annual honor given to the best high school baseball player in Suffolk County — Steve Matz is dedicating himself to the pursuit of his baseball dream. Steve is in good company as a Yastrzemski award winner: Boomer Esiason, the former quarterback for the Bengals and Jets and current sports broadcaster, received the same honor.
“Waking up every day and playing ball, going to the field with your buddies, that’s just awesome,” Steve declared. “There are so many good players around you, it definitely makes you want to work harder and really get better.”