Catching up with Mr. Talented

Matt Lauderdale

One-dimensional students don't appeal to college admissions. One-dimensional workers don't appeal to employers. One-dimensional personalities don't appeal to their dinner dates. So why would a one-dimensional baseball player appeal to a major league baseball team?

Matt Lauderdale of the Fort Wayne Wizards, a Low-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres, doesn't have to worry too much about that, as he is far from one-dimensional.

The 24-year-old catcher from Georgia knew since his freshman year in high school that he wanted to play professional baseball, and he knew since then that he had to make up for his lack of size in other ways to make that dream come true.

"When I was in preschool, my parents wanted me to be active and asked me what I wanted to play," Lauderdale recalled. "I chose baseball. My granddad played college baseball at Emory and my brother plays at North Georgia, but that's as far as anyone has gotten.

"I get didn't too many looks in high school because I was still really small," Lauderdale admitted. "I hadn't completely finished growing. I was about 165 pounds, and it was hard enough getting into college. The head coach at the University of Georgia said I was too small and turned around and left. He didn't even watch me play."

The moment Lauderdale signed with the College of Charleston in South Carolina for a partial scholarship, it was already the Bulldogs' loss. They lost a player who developed a reputation for his defense. They lost a ninth round draft pick by the Padres in 2003. They lost a leader. They lost someone who developed a talent in something other than baseball — art.

"Eventually I'd like to go into something that has to do with art," he said. "I'm interested in architecture and design, and I stick mostly to drawing and sculpture. I thought about (getting published) before, but I mostly enjoy drawing for people—portraits, tattoos, etc."

At 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, his favorite artist is Gianlorenzo Bernini, an Italian sculptor from the Baroque Era in the seventeenth century. Lauderdale already designed a tattoo for one of his Wizards teammates — infielder Peter Ciofrone. The tattoo was in remembrance of Ciofrone's father, who passed away during the 2005 baseball season.

Lauderdale went through a similar experience of his own in the middle of his junior college season when he lost his father to pancreatic cancer.

"I can definitely relate to what Peter was going through," he said. "I remember how I felt when my dad passed away. I didn't want to talk to anybody, didn't want to see anybody. I just wanted to be left alone.

"I told him that if he ever wanted to talk about anything that I'd be there for him. There's really not much you can do in a situation like that even though you've been through it."

Lauderdale also said his father was always a big motivator in his life.

"He always told me to establish my goals and never fall short of them. He was just a really big inspiration for me, and both of my parents really just backed me and the decisions that I've made and the career path that I wanted to take. They said not to ever settle for anything less than what I wanted and that if I wanted something to go out and get it. I made a promise to him that I was going to make it to baseball.

"But even with something like this, you still have to get the job done regardless of what's happened. It definitely pushes me when things get tough, but I really have to think about not just doing it for him but doing it for me and for my family too."

As the oldest member of the Wizards team, Lauderdale was able to share his knowledge of life and baseball with the less experienced players.

"Everyone looked to me as the veteran, and I kind of showed the ropes to the younger guys. I didn't really feel like the oldest one on the team because since I started with baseball, I've always been one of the oldest ones on every team because I matured really late."

But as for himself, he admires professional catchers Damian Miller (Milwaukee Brewers) and Brad Ausmus (Houston Astros).

"I actually kind of discovered (catching) by accident. When I was about 11, one of the players on our team broke his leg, and the coach asked us if anyone knew how to catch. I said I had no idea, but I'd try. After catching for one game I was hooked on it."

Last season with the Wizards, he was the backup for Colt Morton until Morton strained a hamstring on July 7. He took over the starting role and did not relinquish it the rest of the way. He's becoming a more balanced player and a more consistent and reliable hitter thanks to a different mindset.

"The past couple years that I've been backing up, I've never had the opportunity to start. To tell you the truth I was kind of upset about it because I thought I was a commodity for San Diego. I started looking at other catchers and getting upset that they were getting the opportunity and I wasn't, instead of taking advantage of the opportunities that I had.

"This year I changed that mentality to just playing my game when I got the opportunity to and taking advantage the catches that I got, which definitely worked out for me. I'm just trying to worry a more about myself instead of what other people are doing. I think that's probably the one thing that helped the most. I don't think I physically or mechanically changed."

In 75 games last year, he hit .282 with a .370 on-base percentage, ten homers, 54 RBI, 25 doubles, and two stolen bases.

Did I mention he even got a hit off Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood in a rehab assignment on July 31? To him, it was to some extent an achievement to get a two-out single off a 2003 National League All-Star.

"I really try not to pay attention to who's pitching," he said. "I try to take every at-bat the same no matter who's on the mound, but I was a little bit nervous. It was definitely a milestone that I had somewhat achieved. It made me realize what's possible, that I do have what it takes. If I can get a hit off Kerry Wood, I believe that I can get a hit of pretty much anyone."

A catcher has the huge responsibility of leading a pitching staff and controlling the running game, but hitting is an important facet of Lauderdale's game. He doesn't want to be a catcher who focuses too much on his defensive game that he can't produce when called upon with a bat at the plate. Last year he proved himself a clutch hitter, batting .371 with runners in scoring position, going 7-12 with the bases loaded.

"A prototypical catcher is not fast," he said, "and everyone just uses the excuse that he uses his knees so much. Over the years they wear down, so you don't really look for speed out of a catcher. But why not have speed behind the plate? It's just another weapon you can definitely use.

"There really aren't many five-tool catchers, and that's what I want to be considered. I want to be a guy that can steal bases, a guy that can end up on second, or a guy who can clear the bases altogether. And I want to be someone that people don't want to run on. I pretty much just want to be the all-around best catcher that's ever played the game."

Take that, Georgia Bulldogs. Bigger isn't always better.

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