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Father and son make it to 'the Show' together at Tropicana Field

Tampa Bay Rays groundskeeper Zach Mathews, 20, left, poses with a rake and second base with his dad, Rays scorekeeper Bill Mathews, 53, holding his score book in front of the team logo at Tropicana Field.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

Tampa Bay Rays groundskeeper Zach Mathews, 20, left, poses with a rake and second base with his dad, Rays scorekeeper Bill Mathews, 53, holding his score book in front of the team logo at Tropicana Field.

ST. PETERSBURG

Before he climbs into the press box, before he opens his Louisville Slugger briefcase and pulls out his score book, the Rays' official scorer for Major League Baseball strides across home plate.

He checks the turf.

Then he checks on his son.

"Hey Z-man," he called last week to a dark-haired young man sweeping sunflower seeds off second base.

The young man looked up and waved. "Hey, Dad!"

Bill Mathews, 53, became the Rays' official scorer in 2009.

His youngest son Zach, 20, joined the Tropicana Field grounds crew that same season.

While Mathews watches the game from on high, trying to discern hits from errors, his son sees most innings from the edge of the diamond. Where the players spit their seeds.

"The Yankees spit the most," Zach said.

Every dad who loves baseball dreams his boy will make it to the majors. But when your son has epilepsy, like Zach, when he has trouble speaking and needs special help at school, you don't dare let yourself dream.

Even if your son is a wicked left-handed pitcher who capped his career at Boca Ciega High with an inside-the-park homer.

Even if baseball has always been your world. And his.

• • •

In high school in Rhode Island, Mathews played second base. "I was a pretty good hitter," he said. "If the wind was blowing out."

For college, he chose Eckerd so he could come to Florida. Where baseball season never ends.

By his junior year, Mathews knew he would never make it to "the Show." He sobbed in his dorm, wondering what he would do. When a ballplayer doesn't play ball anymore, who is he?

The next day, he told his coach, who suggested he change positions — from player to teacher. The coach made Mathews his assistant at Eckerd College.

That was 1978. Mathews later got married, raised a son and daughter. He taught physical education at the Canterbury School and later became principal of the high school. In 1990, he was named Eckerd's head coach.

That same year, his youngest boy was born.

• • •

On the night of the Rays' last home game of the regular season, Mathews stood by the visiting dugout during batting practice, holding his briefcase and watching Zach shoulder a shorn-off broom.

"All done?" he asked his son.

Zach shook his head. "As long as they're hitting, they're spitting."

At outdoor ballparks, sunflower seeds disintegrate in the grass. At the Trop, Zach and the other 13 men have to sweep the shells from the fake turf.

He dumped his dustpan into the trash, tipped his chin at his dad. "Have a good game, Dad."

"You too, Z-man."

• • •

To most people in Tampa Bay, Mathews is Coach.

After 32 years at Eckerd, plus kids' camps at the college, after leading the Rays' summer program for a decade, Mathews can't count the number of ballplayers he has taught.

He started multiplying. "At least 50,000." In 20 years as head coach, 15 of his Eckerd players have been signed as pros. But he's more proud of their graduation rate: 95 percent. "They don't come to college to play ball," he said. "They come to find out what they're going to do when baseball stops."

Mathews never coached his son. On purpose. But Zach was with him on the bus from the beginning. Strapped into his baby seat, surrounded by rowdy ballplayers, crisscrossing Florida while his dad's team took on other colleges.

"Zach grew up with 30 big brothers," Mathews said. "Everyone was always so patient with him."

At 12, Zach was Eckerd's bat boy. At 15, he went with his dad when the Swedish national team flew Mathews overseas to prepare them for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Every summer, Zach leads the T-ballers at his dad's camp.

These days, when he's not studying landscaping at PTEC, Zach volunteers as a physical education assistant at Jamerson Elementary.

Now he is also "Coach."

• • •

After the Orioles beat the Rays that night 2-0, after Mathews announced the official game time and tallied the immortal stats and faxed them to the Elias Sports Bureau, he scanned the empty diamond.

There was Zach, out by second base, sweeping tire shreds. He rounded third. And headed home.

The night before, after the Rays had clinched a playoff spot, after everyone else had left the press box to get sprayed by champagne, Mathews sat alone marveling at his boy as he pulled a tarp over the mound. And when pitcher David Price came out of the dugout to hug Zach, Mathews wiped his eyes.

His boy had made it to the big leagues.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

Father and son make it to 'the Show' together at Tropicana Field 10/05/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 5, 2010 10:56pm]

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