I always wanted to be a quarterback…
Growing up in northern California, my early childhood was filled with 49ers red and gold. Steve Young was my idol, and at 7 years old I thought life began and ended with football. Little did I know I would end up 5-ft-7, skinny, and slow. Ironically, I never played a day of organized tackle football, and the quarterback dream died before it ever really began. Either way, I was a football kid through and through during the early years.
My first memory of Giants baseball came at a pretty young age as well. I remember watching part of a game with my babysitter’s husband, a die-hard fan who had one of those black 80’s (this was during the 90’s, mind you) Giants “Starter” jackets littered with dozens of commemorative pins. I couldn’t tell you who they were playing that day, but I’ll never forget the name of the pitcher on the mound for the orange and black. How can you forget a name like William VanLandingham? I vividly remember him slinging pitch after pitch at an opposing batter who simply kept fouling them off, one after the other.
I’d say I really started following Giants baseball in the late-90’s. I was young, but I still remember most of the names who played during that time. I had a Barry Bonds poster on my wall for most of my childhood, but it wasn’t until I attended my first game (at an infant Pac Bell Park) in 2001 that I really became a fan. I went with a good buddy for his [12th] birthday, and talk about an experience. Front row seats right behind the Giants bullpen… still the best seats I’ve ever had at any game.
It was August 2nd, and Jason Schmidt was the starter that night – his first start with the Giants after being traded from Pittsburgh, who also just happened to be in town. Schmitty tossed his warm-ups 10 feet in front of us, and when he was done the bullpen catcher dropped the ball right in my glove. A half hour into my first ever big league ballgame, I was hooked for life. My buddy Russ would get a ball that day too (a foul dribbler off the bat of Benito Santiago), as his grandpa did too (an Andres Galarraga foul that Aaron Fultz threw into the stands). Three of the four of us went home with a baseball that night; Schmidt was brilliant; Bonds hit a majestic shot into the Cove, and Felix Rodriguez glove-fived me as Robb Nen nailed down the final out. For a kid in middle school at his first major sporting event, it was an absolutely magical experience. One I certainly hope to share with my own future kids someday.
Turns out I wasn’t very good at baseball. I had fun playing as a kid, but learned pretty quickly that it too may not be my calling in life. A weak arm, poor depth perception and a slow bat are pretty much the kiss of death in a sport that requires all three. I did try my hand at pitching one year. I never knew 9 year olds could actually hit a homerun over the fence, but one did against me. My best friend and I still laugh about it to this day.
It was kind of ironic, actually. My three closest friends growing up would become college baseball players (two catchers and a pitcher), yet I had absolutely no ability to play the game. Following them and their respective careers (all played for different high schools and colleges) certainly helped develop my intense passion for the game today.
In high school I decided I’d try my hand at tennis. That would be one of the best decisions I’d make in my life, sparking a lifelong passion and four incredibly fun years. It would ultimately lead me to Montana, where my best friend Tyler and I spent some time playing tennis and baseball collegiately for the same university. In Montana he met his now wife, and I met the woman who will become mine next summer. We also made some lifelong friendships out there, including some guys who were just as crazy about baseball as we were.
We even spent a couple summers coaching Little League. Imagine four college guys running around a group of 8th and 9th graders. Our best pitcher tossed a 5 inning perfect game in our coaching debut. How did we celebrate the win? Dairy Queen chicken strip baskets in the dorm lobby, of course.
We only won a couple more games that summer. Long before I knew anything about Matt Duffy, we called ourselves the Dirtbags (Tyler’s doing), and we made a living on grass stains and stolen bases. Coaching with three of your closest pals? That was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I’ve thought about writing a book about that quirky team, and even have an old notebook laying around somewhere that I scribbled stories into a few years back.
Somewhere along the way I developed a love for minor league baseball. It began during my first year of college. While browsing the internet one day, I found an article about the Giants most recent 1st round pick, a kid named Madison Bumgarner who was thrashing A-ball hitters down south. I did a little research, and was blown away to find that we were the same age. Bumgarner is actually just a few months younger than I am. For someone who knew nothing about minor league baseball, this was a huge discovery for me. Next thing you know I’m tuning in to late afternoon radio broadcasts for the Augusta Greenjackets once a week, not wanting to miss a minute of this 18 year old Bumgarner’s performances. There were others on that club. Nick Noonan, Angel Villalona, Dan Runzler, Thomas Neal… I’d never even heard of this team, this league, or Low-A baseball before, but it consumed me during the summer of 2008.
Minor league baseball and “prospecting” changed me as a baseball fan. It was like uncovering a world I never knew existed. I remember telling my buddies about Bumgarner – how he’d one day be an ace for the Giants. Back then I believed all good prospects turned to gold, but Bumgarner was without a doubt my “guy,” the player who I couldn’t wait to see play. I never could have imagined the success MadBum (or the Giants) would have at such a young age, but I knew how talented he was, and it sure was fun to follow him through the system – especially when the MLB club was going through its only real downswing of the Brian Sabean era.
By the summer of 2013, I knew my passion for baseball went way beyond even most “die-hard” fans. I needed an outlet. My coworker and former college roommate Aaron (one of the most loyal Seattle Mariners fans you’ll find) helped coax me into starting this blog. There really weren’t a ton of good Giants blogs out there back then, and there were even fewer blogs that focused on the minors… so I figured that could be the angle on which I could make a name. Cove Chatter was born.
A month later I decided to start a feature that would focus on players in the organization who were (for different reasons) flying under the radar. I called it the “prospect spotlight,” and it lasted all of three posts before fizzling out. I didn’t know it then, but those three posts would not only help cement my love for blogging, but also take my life down a very unexpected but incredible path.
I scoured the box scores for each of the Giants minor league affiliates in search of my first prospect to highlight. I was a regular visitor to the blog “When the Giants Come to Town” (I still am), and noticed a name that seemed to appear in DrB’s MiLB notables nearly every morning. I was taken back to Augusta, the same team which I’d stumbled across five years earlier. The Greenjackets had another solid club, one that leaned on the arms of Martin Agosta, Kendry Flores, and Derek Law. They were not an offensive juggernaut, but one player had been a consistent contributor all season. Even better, he was a former Long Beach Dirtbag. It was time to find out as much as possible about this Matt Duffy kid.
I started this blog for many reasons. Meeting and connecting with players was truly not one of them. Maybe I was just naive, but I didn’t think professional athletes ever read/watched/listened to anything about themselves online. So, as someone very green in the blogging world, it blew my mind when the same Matt Duffy who I’d just written a post about not only “liked” that post, but followed the Twitter account I’d created for Cove Chatter as well. The same thing happened a few weeks later after I wrote another prospect post about pitcher Chase Johnson. Since then, numerous Giants prospects, their parents, and relatives have followed the account. I certainly don’t interact with all of them, but I have made acquaintances with a few along the way. And though I’m not star-struck by it anymore, chatting with players and/or their families still does blow my mind sometimes. Social media can be an incredible tool.
From the beginning, Duffy just stood out. There wasn’t much for scouting reports or video of him that first summer, but I did stumble across a short batting practice clip likely shot by David Lee of the Augusta Chronicle (a long-time favorite of mine). I’m no scout, and I didn’t play baseball long enough to know much about the inner workings of a hitter’s swing, but Duffy’s stood out to me. It just looked so smooth. For a kid who showed no power in the (extremely pitcher-friendly) Big West League, that swing looked like it could really drive the ball. Same with a video shot by Conner Penfold from Duffy’s short stint in San Jose late that summer. Matt calmly stepped to the plate, locked in on the first pitch he saw, and crisply drove a ball into the left field seats. It was his first big fly during his short-lived time in the Cal League, but again it just looked so easy.
The next summer (2014) I purchased the MiLB.tv online package for the first time in order to get a better look at Giants prospects throughout the system. The AA Richmond club boasted the strongest pitching staff in its brief history, and I wanted to get a good look at those arms. It was Duffy, however, who caught my eye most nights on those broadcasts. Whether it was a defensive play, a stolen base, a sacrifice fly, or his trademark opposite field single, Duffy seemed to have a hand in the game nearly ever single night. I loved the way he played. Not only was he a former Dirtbag, but he played like one on the field. A true baseball rat. As time went on, I started to wonder not if Duffy would be a big league player, but when. He was quickly becoming my favorite player in the organization.
Watching him ascend from Augusta to San Jose to Richmond to San Francisco in such a short time was one of the most rewarding things I’d experienced since I began this blog. Whether it seems weird or not, you get attached to these guys. Especially the underdogs. To see Duffy have a hand in a Giants World Series run was completely surreal.
I don’t know why, but I felt the urge to reach out to Matt after the World Series. To congratulate him, for one, but also to let him know that I’d never forgotten about him supporting my blog. Though I shouldn’t have been, I was surprised when he responded. That’s when I began to understand and fully appreciate him as more than just a player.
Duffy also did something for me last winter that I know I won’t ever be able to repay him for. My first year as an elementary school teacher will forever be remembered as the “Duffy year,” and we have the personalized, signed photo of him hanging on the wall to commemorate it. At the time, he was Matt Duffy the rookie Giant, and not all the kids knew who he was. Now he’s Matt Duffy the starting 3B and fan favorite, and my new class cannot believe how “lucky” we were last year. Nor can I.
I often use Duffy as an example in my classroom. Most of my students are Giants fans who have watched him all season. We talk about his work ethic, how he shows up every day ready to play. We talk about his attitude, how he doesn’t dwell on his mistakes, but instead learns from them. I also make a point of his leadership. He doesn’t say a lot, and you rarely see him showboat (such a common sight in football, America’s favorite sport, these days). He lets his actions do the talking, something I encourage these kids to do all the time. For me, he is the shining example of what young athletes should strive to be.
Personally, I appreciate the mental aspect to Duffy’s game. We’ve heard about his gospel, the “Mental Side of Hitting” book that he reads religiously. My high school tennis coach gave me a book during my sophomore year titled “Winning Ugly,” written by a former American professional player named Brad Gilbert. That book helped me understand my abilities as an athlete better.
As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t have the size or physical traits to knock my opponent off the court. I knew I had to find other ways to succeed in a sport where I was so inexperienced. So I focused on the mental aspects of the game. Finding the weaknesses in my opponent and exploiting them while maximizing my own strengths – my ability to place my shots. I really believe that book helped me have the successful tennis career that I did. There were plenty of more experienced, physically gifted players I was able to outlast due in large part to owning that mental edge. Learning that Duffy puts so much emphasis on the mental approach to the game just makes me an even bigger fan.
I’m at nearly 2,500 words here. I didn’t have a specific direction for this post when I started it. I more just wanted to start typing and see where it took me. But I can say that I was prompted to write today after the announcement last night of Matt Duffy as the Giants 35th Willie Mac Award winner. For the Duffman, it seemed like the perfect bow on a tremendous rookie season. A season in which he was not only one of the most valuable San Francisco Giants, but one of the most valuable players in all the National League. And maybe most importantly, he did it the right way, through hard work, quiet leadership and a consistent approach.
I’m not sure anybody would have predicted this kind of rise from Duffy two summers ago. But now that he’s here, he’s one of my absolute favorites to watch each night out. For those of us who followed him all the way up, it’s been a rewarding run, and one that won’t soon end. I’d love for the opportunity to meet Matt in person some day, to thank him for being so humble and supporting an everyday, no-name blogger. But I know how things go, and I’m not a “rah-rah” attention-seeking type of fan (and as a teacher in a small-town I know what it feels like to have people stop you and want to talk/visit/say hello at every community event you attend).
So it may not ever happen. Either way, I feel so fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to connect with Matt and his family during the past couple years. And now his name will forever be placed among some of the most note-worthy Giants of this generation. That is so cool, and so deserved. Congratulations Matt. Thanks for all you do, and know that it doesn’t go unnoticed. We’re proud to call you a Giant!