NEW PORT RICHEY — The former big leaguer sees reminders every day of the big shoes he must fill.
Julius Matos works at one of the best high school baseball stadiums in Pasco County. He knows the habits instilled by his legendary predecessor. He walks by the sign that reads Beets Field, named for Larry Beets, the only baseball coach Ridgewood has ever known until now.
“You can’t replace a Coach Beets,” Matos said. “You just can’t.”
But Matos must try.
Ridgewood hired the former MLB infielder in October to replace Beets, who won 565 games in 28 years for the Rams but used up the last of his five seasons in the Deferred Retirement Option Program.
“He just impressed us in how he wanted to develop well-rounded young men,” Rams athletic director Tom Wellington said. “That was his big goal.”
Matos’ resume is also impressive.
The 16th-round pick in 1994 toiled in the minors and independent leagues until he was finally called up in May 2002 by the San Diego Padres.
His father was frail from diabetes at the time, and Matos wasn’t sure if his dad would live to see him play in the majors. But when Matos traveled to play the Devil Rays in June, a week before Father’s Day, his dad flew from Puerto Rico to watch from the stands at Tropicana Field.
Matos blasted the first pitch he saw for a three-run home run.
“It might be one of those movie moments,” Matos said.
He played 104 games in the majors over two seasons and battled in the minors until 2006. He began coaching in the Yankees system in 2008 and spent two years in Single-A Tampa. A fight in the dugout of Double-A Trenton last year led him to start a new career in Florida with his youth baseball clinic.
Matos was watching little league baseball in west Pasco County months ago when he saw three teenagers practicing by themselves. He soon learned they were Ridgewood players and that their school was in search of a head coach.
“What drove me here was what I saw with those guys,” Matos said. “I saw them working. I saw their dedication.”
The Rams continued to work, even though they didn’t know who their next coach would be or if he’d live up to the standards of Beets, who led them to the 2002 state title game.
“We didn’t know if we were going to get some random guy,” senior shortstop Robby McCade said.
Players met Matos in the offseason and learned that he wasn’t a random guy. He was a former major leaguer.
They began to see a style that differed from Beets’ routine. Beets preached conditioning. Matos practices fundamentals. The Rams quickly bought into Matos’ techniques.
“Obviously he knows what he’s doing,” senior first baseman Bobby Anderson said.
And their union is paying off. Ridgewood got off to a good start by winning the preseason classic at Hudson.
The Rams will be without one of their top pitchers, PHCC recruit Bob Peck, who is expected to miss the rest of the year with a knee injury, but their offense gets a jolt from the bat of sophomore Joey Macaluso.
Matos said his team doesn’t have much power, but the speed honed under Beets and the focus on the basics could take them far in his first year.
“The heart and soul of the team is a dedicated group,” Matos said. “They’re committed. That makes for a fun year.”
Others to watch
Tom LoSauro, Bishop McLaughlin: LoSauro coached Bishop Verot to a Class 3A state title last year and a top-15 national ranking. Two of his players were drafted in the first 70 picks. Now he takes over a Hurricane team that advanced to the region semifinals.
Tommy Peterson, River Ridge: The USF recruit posted a 2.18 ERA and held opponents to a .195 batting average last season as a right-handed pitcher. He also plays shortstop.
Kevin Faulkner, Fivay: The junior first baseman/pitcher led the Falcons with a .429 average and was their biggest jolt of power. He was Fivay’s team leader in doubles (seven), triples (two) and home runs (two).
Brad Hencke, Land O’Lakes: The lefty pitcher was 5-0 in 12 starts with a 2.64 ERA, 64 strikeouts and 26 walks. He’s signed with the University of Tampa.
Brandon Brosher, Springstead: His .356 batting average during his sophomore season was solid, but his power was even more impressive. He blasted eight home runs and five doubles for the Eagles.
Michael Barrone, Wiregrass Ranch: He was one of the Bulls’ leaders in batting average (.394) while knocking in 16 runs and stealing 15 bases.
Zach White, Wesley Chapel: The outfielder was one of the Wildcats’ top players as a junior, finishing with six doubles, 24 RBIs and a .442 average.