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by Editor Rick Cabral

Matt Walbeck "Smelling the Roses" 

 Matt_Walbeck
Photo by Will Bentzel/MiLB.com

For the first time in 24 years, Matt Walbeck is smelling the roses. And loving it.

The pastoral reprieve, however, came unexpectedly last week when he was fired as manager of the Rome Braves. The Atlanta Braves' Single-A club was 28-56 and in last place in the Class A South Atlantic League's Southern Division when Walbeck was terminated.

"This is the first time I've ever been fired or released," he started in an exclusive interview with BaseballSacramento.com. He conceded that it was the third time in the past four years that he was uninvited from an organization.


In baseball, it's three strikes—you're out.


As a result, Walbeck is spending the summer at home with his young family (wife and children aged 12, 9, and 4). And digging it.

It's the first time he hasn't been on a summer baseball diamond since he left town in 1987 as an eighth-round pick by the Chicago Cubs out of Sacramento High, where he was twice named All-City as a catcher.

Matt played 11 seasons in the Major Leagues, including two stints with the Detroit Tigers (ending with a career .233 batting average). In 2004, the Tigers decided not to resign him. But when President/General Manager Dave Dombrowski invited him in to discuss an opportunity to manage in the Tigers' system, Walbeck leapt at the chance.


"I made a career change right then and there," he remembers.


For three years he managed the West Michigan Whitecaps, winning two league championships in 2004 and 2006. The latter achievement earned him the Midwest League Manager of the Year and a promotion to manage Detroit's Double-A team the Erie Seawolves of the Eastern League, which had finished in last place in 2006.


Walbeck turned the club around, and guided them to the playoffs, which earned the young skipper the Eastern League Manager of the Year Award (his second consecutive MOY award). Baseball America also honored him as the Minor League Manager of the Year in 2007.


In 2008, the Texas Rangers rewarded the hard-charging Walbeck with an opportunity to be the third base coach under manager, Ron Washington. In hindsight, Walbeck regrets the decision now knowing that the Rangers inserted him in the third base box against the wishes of Washington, who wanted to name a friend to the post.


The Rangers didn't renew his contract and in 2009 Walbeck returned to the Eastern League as manager of Pittsburgh's Altoona Curve. In two years, he reversed the club's direction, finishing as League Champs in 2010. Once again, he was selected Manager of the Year (fourth time in six years), but inexplicably the Pirates decided not to renew his deal at the end of the season.


Asked if he expected the bad news and was told why his contract wasn't renewed, Walbeck told the Altoona Mirror: "No, not really. Just that it wasn’t going to be a good fit. There were some things about how I have some aspirations and [am] highly driven and words like that, but apparently it wasn’t going to work out."


He went to the 2010 Winter League meetings with a boxload of managerial trophies hoping to land another job, but didn't land one until January when the Braves tabbed him as manager of their Single-A Rome team. It was considered a step back for a guy with Double-A credentials. But Walbeck approached it with the same optimistic attitude that has marked his professional career.


Then came the guillotine last week.
And Matt Walbeck called time out.

"In baseball, sometimes you see things you don't expect to see," he said this week in his first media interview since losing his job. "You have to be pretty resilient and humble. I'll be fine."


With his children playing in the background, he mused, "Now it's time for me to reflect and take off from baseball. Getting off the field might interest me, maybe looking at the game from a different perspective. Possibly scouting. Maybe not. Maybe just staying away for awhile, being with my family.

"I'm happy to say I'm not bitter," he added. "I love the game and respect it for what it is."

When asked to characterize Sacramento baseball, his attitude immediately brightened. "It's a hotbed for baseball. You don't realize it until you leave this town."


Walbeck pointed to the climate (calling it "perfect weather"), the coaching (giving kudos to his Sacramento High coaches Don and Jim Graf, and Guy Anderson of Cordova); and his fellow players who developed in the Sacramento Valley.


"Sacramento breeds a certain toughness in a player you don't find in some places," Walbeck theorized, pointing to players like "Santangelo, Vina, Bowa, Baker, Pedroia, the Forsch brothers, Derrek Lee, these guys were ballplayers," he says with pride in his voice.


"There's a difference between an athlete and a baseball player. When you throw a pitch
 inside to a Sacramento player, there's a chance he's going to wear it; he's not going to get out of the way."

Which summarizes the career of Matt Walbeck. He's going to wear this one, no matter how hard it hurts.


Meantime, he'll enjoy the scent of roses and the sounds of children giggling in the backyard.
 

Uploaded 07/14/11
All contents © Rick Cabral 2011

 

 

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