Photo courtesy of Chuck Chavez
Matt Chavez signed a minor-league contract with the Giants after winning the Triple Crown of the Freedom Pro Baseball League.
If not for the need to clean his teeth, Matt Chavez might never have signed a professional baseball contract with the San Francisco Giants.
The former Burlingame High standout, who had a star-crossed career at University of San Francisco before winning the Triple Crown of the Freedom Pro Baseball League with the Prescott (Ariz.) Montezuma Federals, can thank his dentist, Ron Sarles, for hooking him up with the San Francisco Giants.
“This is the wild part of the story,” Chavez said by telephone from his hotel room in Arizona. “My mom tells me to go to the dentist. … and I talk to my dentist and he asked how everything went (in the independent league). … He knows (Giants vice president of baseball operations) Bobby Evans. He said he would put in a call for me. I had no idea who Bobby Evans was. I had a 14-year big leaguer as a coach. I figured he would get me something, but not my dentist.”
The rest, as they say, is history. After dragging his feet for a few days, Chavez finally called Evans, who asked Chavez to attend a tryout in Arizona. Chavez flies down there, goes through the workout and goes home.
A couple weeks go by and he gets another text: can he fly out that night for a tryout the following morning? Chavez jumps on a plane and goes through another workout in front of the Giants’ brass.
“I did the workout,” Chavez said. “I get a text the next day (from the Giants saying), ‘Congratulations. We want to sign you, pending a physical.’ I pass the physical and here I am.
“It’s a crazy story. I still can’t believe it. … I think everyone (in my family) was thrown off by it.”
Chavez said he was signed as a first baseman/catcher and has been surprised with the amount of support the Giants have given him thus far. He said he has played in nearly every game of the instructional league to which he was assigned and said he is doing well at the plate.
“I’ve gotten a chance to play every day. I think it’s basically an extended tryout. … I’ve been getting a decent amount of at-bats. I’m feeling really good. I feel like the power is starting to come. I’ve been hitting a lot of balls on a line,” Chavez said. “[The organization has] been real positive to me, even more so than I thought they would be. They want to work with me and give me a real shot. I didn’t have high expectations.”
Hard work pays off
It literally is a dream come true for Chavez, who grew up a Giants fan. He has spent many an afternoon and evening at AT&T Park watching the Giants play. While he would have been happy to sign with any major league franchise — he also had a tryout with Tampa Bay — the fact he was signed by his favorite team growing up makes it all that much sweeter.
“The Giants, for me, were THE team,” Chavez said. “[To be signed by the Giants] it didn’t feel real. I can’t believe this was the first team to give me my first tryout.”
Becoming a professional athlete, no matter the sport, not only takes talent, it takes a bit of luck as well. Chavez has always had the talent. He was a flame-throwing pitcher with command issues in high school, but had the raw ability that makes college coaches and professional scouts drool. He decided early on he would take the college route and committed to playing for the Dons at USF.
Chavez bounced around the diamond with the Dons — from pitcher to catcher to first base. He was drafted in 2010 as a pitcher by the Chicago White Sox, but Chavez wanted to be a hitter and he stuck with that decision.
“I wanted to be a hitter. I knew what I wanted to do. Plenty of people tried to sway me, (but) I knew I liked hitting too much. I couldn’t give it up,” Chavez said. “I think (not wanting to be a pitcher) gave me a bad rap. [Teams] knew I had a good arm. I could be a really good pitcher … but I love to hit.”
Making the adjustment
It is that ability to hit that apparently piqued the Giants interest. Not so much what Chavez did in college, but what he did during his one season of independent ball.
You see, Chavez admitted he was never quite good swinging a metal or composite bat — the choice of youth, high school and college players.
Put a wood bat in Chavez’s hands, however, and it was a different story.
One of the hardest things baseball players have to do to be a successful pro is learn to hit with a wood bat, which is easier said than the done. Metal bats were invented not only because they were more durable, but they were much more forgiving. You didn’t have to be Ted Williams or Tony Gywnn to be successful with a metal bat. The number of players who washed out of the minors because they couldn’t consistently make the switch is astronomical.
Chavez, apparently, hasn’t had those issues.
“If you look at my stats in college, they weren’t completely terrible, but to me, they were terrible. I could never get in a groove with those metal bats,” Chavez said. “I’ve always done [well] with wood. I’ve done well from the first time I picked up a wood bat. I was just off with the metal bat.”
Taking a circuitous route
Like a fish takes to water, Chavez took to wood and took off in his post-college baseball career. After not having an idea of how to go about becoming a professional baseball player, Chavez finally decided to try the independent league route — independent in that the teams in those leagues have no affiliation with a Major League Baseball organization.
“I didn’t necessarily know where everything would go (in my baseball career),” Chavez said. “I just had to keep my hopes and dreams up and keep working.”
Chavez’s first attempt was in the well-publicized Frontier League. But when he showed up for a tryout, he was one of about 400 players.
He knew his chances of getting noticed were bleak and did not know where to go from there until his mother stepped in for the first time and informed him of the Freedom Pro Baseball League tryout.
“It was kind of a start-up league, (but) I knew I could play every day,” Chavez said. “I ended up doing real well. I knew I needed to make things happen in one year.”
In 39 games, Chavez won the league batting title with a .430 average, led the league in home runs with 12 and tied for RBI lead with 49.
And his reward for putting up those numbers? Nothing.
“I got nothing out of that (attention wise from major league teams),” Chavez said. “I did have the stats, but nobody called me. No one was out at the games. I was just playing to practice my skills.”
Then came the fortuitous call from his mother, telling him to go see the dentist. Did she know Dr. Sarles had a connection with the Giants’ front office? Maybe. Maybe not. But as they say, mom knows best.
A familiar story
Now Chavez is embarking on a similar path took by former College of San Mateo standout Daniel Nava, who is now an integral part of the Boston Red Sox. Nava started his career with an independent league team and parlayed that into a Major League career. Chavez followed Nava’s story and figures, if Nava can do it, why can’t he?
“[Nava’s] story partially kept me going in the game of baseball,” Chavez said. “He played Indy ball and it worked out for him. As long as I keep my hopes up, I can do something like that, too.
“Now I have to put up some numbers here (in instructional league).”