Coastal Carolina baseball coach Gary Gilmore was running on the treadmill in a hotel Friday morning when he saw ESPN’s news ticker report the New York Mets would be calling up prospect Steven Matz to pitch against the Cincinnati Reds this weekend.
So Gilmore, who had signed Matz as a Chanticleer recruit years back before the Mets drafted him and made a final offer too good to pass up, shot off a congratulatory text and received a prompt response.
“He fired right back to me. That’s when he said ‘I’ll be going against another guy that should have been [at Coastal],’” Gilmore said. “That’s neat that still resonated on his mind.”
Matz is scheduled to make his major league debut Sunday against Joey Votto and the Reds, which will no doubt resonate on some minds locally as well as Gilmore and others associated with Coastal Carolina baseball can’t help but remember some of the program’s more prominent recruiting what-ifs.
Votto has long been the most famous example of a Chanticleer signee that got away and the one with which passionate fans are perhaps most familiar. The once under-the-radar slugger from Canada vaulted his stock just before the 2002 draft at a tryout with the Reds, was then selected in the second round, chose to bypass college to start his professional career and went on to win the National League Most Valuable Player award in 2010.
But losing out on Matz was just as significant for the Chants, Gilmore attests.
The talented left-hander from Stony Brook, N.Y., was set to join Coastal Carolina before the 2010 season – yeah, the one that had the Chants on the brink of a College World Series berth before two one-run losses to eventual national champion South Carolina in the NCAA Super Regionals.
He would have joined a star-studded pitching rotation that featured future MLB draftees Cody Wheeler (a fifth-round selection in 2010) and Anthony Meo (a second-rounder in 2011).
“If [Matz] would have come to school he would have been on that 2010 team. I can guarantee you we would have gone to Omaha if we had that guy’s arm,” Gilmore said. “By the end of the season he may have bolted to the top of the group. It would have been interesting. Can you imagine with all the other guys we had? That would have really been fun.”
And Gilmore really thought the Chants had him on his way to Conway too. As the coach tells it, it took a last-minute boost in the Mets’ offer to steal Matz away as a second-round draft pick.
“He grew up in Long Island about 15 minutes from the [Mets’] ballpark there. That was the killer, that and they finally gave him his money,” Gilmore said. “It was back when the rules were different. He had his plane ticket, he was ready to come to Coastal. The next day he was getting on a plane to go to school. And the next day they gave him almost a million dollars.”
According to a recent story on NJ.com, Matz reportedly agreed to an $895,000 signing bonus to join the organization.
“He’s a great kid. He’s one of those guys, I’ve done this a long time, he set a standard that he wanted in the draft and he stuck to it,” Gilmore said. “A lot of them will waiver ... he wouldn’t give in for a penny, held on to the very end and he got everything he wanted. They were about $50,000-$75,000 apart for a time. He kept holding out and he was going to school if he didn’t get it.”
The story with Votto was a little different, but it was equally deflating for the Chants, who could have paired the future Major League All-Star’s bat with that of Coastal Carolina Hall of Fame inductee Mike Costanzo for the 2003-05 seasons.
As Gilmore recalls, Votto was relatively unheralded as a draft prospect until catching the Reds’ attention late in the process.
“He was playing with the Ontario Blue Jays (an amateur team) and they didn’t do anything until May and took a May trip to Charleston. He was a first baseman and he could hit a little bit, this and that. Then they had two catchers get hurt or get sick, Joey volunteered to go behind the plate and he looked like he had a chance to be a really, really good catcher,” Gilmore recalled.
“A very good friend of mine was the east coast crosschecker for the Reds at the time and somehow they got his name and invited him [for a workout]. They had no idea. He wasn’t even on their [draft] board. The majority of teams didn’t even have Joey’s name on the board as a potential draft guy, and he went there [to work out for the Reds] and they said he hit 11-12 balls in the upper deck in batting practice and hit a home run in the live [showcase] game. And the next thing you know he’s a [second] rounder.
“He went to two camps, Toronto and Cincinnati. Had it been a rainy day or something ...”
A few years ago, Gilmore says, he was speaking at function in Toronto and took a group out to an upscale restaurant in the city. He just so happened to run into Votto’s mother, who told the coach how much her son had been eager to play for Coastal Carolina before the draft dictated otherwise.
“I told her, ‘He by far did the right thing. He’s fine. You don’t have to tell me you’re sorry he didn’t come to school. We’re happy for him,’” Gilmore recalled.
And those aren’t the only two such stories. Cleveland Indians All-Star Michael Brantley was another signee who never made it to campus, and Socastee pitcher Dylan Thompson was yanked away from his commitment to CCU just this year after the Mariners made him a fourth-round pick.
Gilmore lamented how trying the process is for a college coach, trying to forecast which recruits are going to get drafted and where along with what current players are going to get drafted and lured away all while trying to find the right pieces to the yearly roster puzzle.
“You think about them a lot,” Gilmore said of the potential Chants who got away. “In my lifetime, I would have got to coach Votto, Matz, Michael Brantley and not to mention there were a lot of others that didn’t make it to the big leagues. It makes you shake your head. It was great for those guys, it all worked out for them. Anybody that makes it to the big leagues defies the odds for the most part, and the ones that have done what Votto has done and what Michael Brantley is doing, they’ve hugely defied the odds.”
And he’s hoping for more of the same for Matz, who had a 2.29 ERA over 66 minor league games dating back to 2012.
Gilmore said while not all of the players he recruits make it to campus, the relationships built with the players and their families in that recruiting process often endure regardless.
“It’s nice they respond to your calls and your texts and you can keep that relationship going,” he said.
And, he acknowledges, in the case of the two players who will share the diamond at Citi Field on Sunday, there’s no denying they made the right choice.
“It’s one of those things you could sit around and just tell stories about all the time,” Gilmore said. “As painful as it is to lose a Matz and a Votto and a Brantley and all them guys, it’s great for them. At the end of the day, those guys, their talent it’s just so incredibly good that’s totally where they belong. Personally, they don’t belong in college when they’re that good out of high school.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318 or on Twitter @RyanYoungTSN.