To tell the story of Matt Walbeck, it goes back to his early days as a baseball fan in northern California. He was able to watch and learn from two really good major-league teams, the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants.
As he said, “I liked both. I would go to the Giants and the A’s games with my dad. I was one of those fans that pulled for both of them.”
He wasn’t the biggest kid, but he had a lot of support and kept working, and growing. “I wanted to be a Major League Baseball player ever since I was five. I had to fight for everything that I had. I was never the biggest or strongest kid on the team. My dad was my coach and used to practice with me a lot. By the time I got to high school, I was still considered too small to catch. So freshman and sophomore years, I played other positions like second or third base.”
An opportunity arose during his junior year. “The catcher in front of me didn’t get good grades, so I took over the spot. I started to lift weights and got bigger and stronger. I always knew I was going to play in the Major Leagues, but it wasn’t until that point that I realized I had a chance to get drafted. The scouts were coming and looking at one of my teammates, Wayne Weinheimer, who played in the minor leagues with the Cubs.”
He became a very good, highly-touted high school player in Sacramento and became the eighth round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs in 1987.
“I was going to sign no matter what out of high school because I always wanted to get to the big leagues, and I figured there was no better way than to learn how to play professional baseball as a youngster. I was 17.”
As a high school draft pick, he gradually made the move up the minor leagues, though there was some extended missed time.
“When I was 19, I blew my knee out. I had a career-threatening ACL/MCL injury.”
The injury cost him part of the 1989 season and most of the 1990 season. But you could say that he made the most of the time off, adding another aspect to his game. He said, “During the time it took me to rehab my knee, I taught myself to switch-hit. So I came back as a switch-hitter.”
He spent the entire 1992 season at Double-A Charlotte. He had hit .301/.358/.418 (.776) with 22 doubles and seven homers.
He went to spring training with the Cubs in 1993. Ryne Sandberg broke his arm and started the season on the Disabled List. That opened up a roster spot. Just days before the season was set to begin, GM Larry Himes and manager Jim Lefebvre called him over during batting practice.
“I walked over. I thought they were going to send me down, but they said, ‘Hey, Congratulations! You made the team.’ So, that was pretty exciting.”
I’d say so. He played in 11 games for the Cubs at the start of the season and hit .200. However, he had two doubles and a home run (off of Jose DeLeon) among his six hits. He spent the rest of that season in Triple-A.
Following that 1993 season, the Twins traded right-hander Willie Banks to the Cubs for Walbeck and right-hander Dave Stevens. The Twins hoped they had their catcher and closer for the next several years.
“It was really exciting. Baseball is a business, and I understood that deals had to be made. It opened up a spot for me to really learn from Tom Kelly, and play alongside Kirby Puckett. To learn to play the game like that, having watched the Twins as a minor leaguer, watching them win the World Series in 1987 and again in 1991. I knew quite a bit about their organization and the importance they placed on the fundamentals of the game, to always play hard and get the most out of what you had.”
Of course, he was a young player who played for Tom Kelly, who was very well known for not being real patient with rookies..
“My Tom Kelly experience was... I learned a great deal from him. He was very difficult on younger players, and I had it coming. Sometimes I spoke more than I listened. I was young, inexperienced. I didn’t really understand what it was like to play in the Major Leagues. At the same time, even as a young player, you have to be very confident. Sometimes you walk the line of being overly confident. He was very hard on me. I think he respected me. I respected him.”
Walbeck continued, “It was a tough time for him, trying to rebuild. And, trying to fill the shoes of Brian Harper isn’t an easy task. He was an amazing player. It was very difficult to fill those shoes. The city welcomed me. The teammates were great. TK was great, but sometimes he had very little patience, and understandably so.”
The Twins had the two World Series titles, but things went downhill fairly quickly after the 1992 season.
“It was a tough time for the Twins and for baseball in general. “Our teams weren’t very good. Our winning percentage wasn’t very good. It was tough losing more than winning, and rebuilding. There were a lot of great moments, but certainly a lot of not great moments.”
Across the league, things were changing as well. “We went on strike in 1994, and we came back later in 1995. So the game was somewhat going through some growing pains. We broke it apart for a little bit. Owners and players alike. It became a challenge from that point too. The game had changed. They did some re-alignment. They added a division, the Central. I can remember Hrbek saying he was disappointed because we didn’t play the A’s in the same division anymore because they were rivals.”
He made the Opening Day roster in 1994 and spent three seasons with the Twins. In 275 games played, Walbeck hit .230 with 40 doubles and eight homers.
Walbeck said, “(TK) stuck with me, and he gave me more chances than I probably deserved, to be honest. The whole organization did. I was so fortunate to have that opportunity, and looking back on it, getting to play with Kirby Puckett and Chuck Knoblauch, and to catch Scott Erickson and Rick Aguilera.” He added, “I mean, I remember hitting behind Dave Winfield. That was just surreal. Kent Hrbek. All those guys.”
He was there for Dave Winfield’s 3000th hit, “Molitor too. I was there for Paul Molitor’s 3000th hit.”
But his favorite memory? “ My biggest memory, my happiest moment playing for the Twins, was catching Scott Erickson’s no-hitter. By far. That was my career highlight.”
He really grew to love the Twin Cities too. “The city itself is just a wonderful city. I really learned to fish there, and get into the great outdoors. Man, what a great experience!”
His playing time lessened in 1996, and after that season he was traded to the Detroit Tigers.
He spent a season with the Tigers before spending three seasons with the Angels. “Playing in Anaheim was great because it was closer to home. It was my first multi-year contract. That was awesome. I got to play for Mike Scioscia, Terry Collins and even Joe Maddon a little bit.”
He spent the 2001 season in the Phillies organization. “I was in Philadelphia for a long time. That was when 9/11 hit. I didn’t have an at bat for three weeks or so. My wife was getting ready to give birth, so I had to leave pretty soon too. We were making a playoff run, and I didn't have any at bats. It came down to the point where I had to literally beg Larry Bowa to get me in there. It was in Florida, on the road, game was out of hand, and he was somewhat hesitant but then finally gave in. I realized that at-bat was going to be my only at-bat for the entire year. Reflecting on my baseball card, with my stats, this was it. I didn’t know if I was ever going to play again. I was fortunate enough to get a hit in that at bat, so I batted 1.000 that year. Oh man, talk about a career highlight. It really doesn’t mean a lot but to me it was pretty special.”
He ended his career with two more seasons in Detroit. “2002 was a rough season. Then 2003 was really rough. We went 43-119 which was … we almost broke the record for the all-time losingest season.”
Upon retirement, Walbeck went into the world of coaching.
He had a ton of success, winning a couple of league championships, as a minor league manager in the Tigers organization. He spent a season coaching for the Texas Rangers in 2008. Then he went back to managing. After 11 seasons, “that was enough.”
“I look back on it very fondly. At the end of the day, I’ve worked for ten of 30 major-league teams as either a player, coach or a manager. That’s over 25 years of professional experience in organized baseball. I”m only 50, but I still look back on it and think, ‘Wow! I’ve accomplished a lot.’ Half my life I was in pro baseball. Pretty cool.”
He went back home to Sacramento. He did some lessons, but he was able to be a dad and a husband, helping his wife as their three children were growing up. Walbeck’s son is now 21 and just got his first ‘real’ job. He’s got a daughter who just finished high school and is headed to college soon. He’s also got a daughter in eighth grade.
In 2011, his lessons developed into a business, the Walbeck Baseball Academy.
Walbeck offers training classes. Players come into his facilities and warm up. They choose classes like hitting, pitching, or the catcher position. They have memberships or training plans. They would enroll and come in to train.
Well, that was before COVID. Walbeck had to let some staff go since students can’t come into the facilities for indoor training..
Now Walbeck is at the office nearly every day handling online training. He offers Zoom classes, three to five classes a day, up to five days a week. He has up to 15 players in each class.
He says over the past, he’s done 250 Zoom classes and reached about 1,400 students.
“It’s pretty amazing to see the improvements the kids are making, and the different areas they work around their house, such as the garage or the living room, or kids will go to the park. We do drills, and I focus on each kid, and I help them with their technique and their concentration and their confidence.”
Walbeck lives in a suburb of Sacramento, and his facility is in Rancho Cordero, California. Most of the players who have attended the facilities are from within a 50-mile radius. However, with the online training and camps on Zoom, you can sign up and participate from anywhere around the country.
For more information, be sure to bookmark Walbeck Baseball Academy. Check out the training opportunities and the camps. Check out the schedule of training coming up. Hey, there are even training sessions for adults.
One more fun story from Walbeck. We talked a bit about how the Catcher position has evolved since he was a big league catcher.
“That position has changed dramatically over the years. When I was trained to play professionally, your job was to block pitches and be in a position to throw guys out, as well as receive the pitch. But you also had umpires back in those days that would come down on you if you tried to frame pitches.”
“In fact, Paul Runge was my first umpire in a spring training game, and he literally told me he would have my (butt) if I ever tried to frame another pitch for the rest of my career.”
“I couldn’t believe it. I went to Tom Trebelhorn and said, ‘Hey get a load of this…I’m not supposed to frame pitches.’
“He said, ‘Hey, you get back out there and tell him you’re paid to do this.’ OK. This guy is a veteran ump in the major leagues, so I had to deal with that.”
“The umpire catcher relationship was very strong. You had to have their trust. You didn’t want to try to steal anything from them. Nowadays, you’re literally trying to steal pitches from them. Yeah, you’d try to steal pitches, but you didn’t want to embarrass yourself by pulling pitches too far. Now there’s so much emphasis on trying to pull pitches.”
I’ve got to say, this was a fun phone call for me. I think the interview portion was about 15-18 minutes, and then we just talked baseball for another 20-25 minutes. It was fantastic, and you can just hear and feel Matt Walbeck’s joy and passion for the game of baseball. If you get a chance, please take a look at the Walbeck Baseball Academy website, and consider signing up for one of his training sessions.