Matt Watson's career path has been anything but conventional. Selected in the 16th round of the 1999 draft by the Montreal Expos, Watson spent nearly five seasons in the minor leagues before finally making his major league debut with the New York Mets in 2003.
Watson was claimed off of waivers by the Oakland A's after the 2003 season and spent two-and-a-half seasons in the A's chain. Despite posting an OPS better than 900 with Triple-A Sacramento over those two-plus seasons, Watson only had a small opportunity at the big league level with Oakland, appearing in 19 games with the A's in 2005.
Early in the 2006 season, Watson got a call from the Chibe Lotte Marines of the Japanese Professional League and decided to take his chances overseas. He played two seasons for Bobby Valentine and the Marines before returning to the States in 2008. He played in the Toronto Blue Jays' organization, spending the year in Triple-A with the Syracuse Chiefs.
The 2009 season was supposed to be spent in Korea, but Watson wound-up coming back to the US early and playing a handful of games in the Mets chain, as well as 66 games for Lancaster of the independent Atlantic League.
Watson, who is from Lancaster, returned to the Barnstormers at the start of the 2010 season after not receiving any offers from major league organizations during the off-season. He was contemplating his future after an active playing career before the A's called and gave him an opportunity once again in affiliated baseball.
Watson was quick to take advantage of the opportunity, homering twice in his first four games for Triple-A Sacramento. He wound-up hitting eight homers in 28 games for the River Cats and when the A's outfield lost Conor Jackson and Ryan Sweeney just before the All-Star break, Watson got the call to the big leagues.
Last week, Watson hit his first major league homerun, a solo shot off of AL All-Star Clay Buchholz, completing an improbable story of career revival.
OaklandClubhouse.com caught-up with Watson at the Oakland Coliseum on Saturday to talk about his journey since leaving the A's organization for Japan in 2006.
OaklandClubhouse: This season must be a complete 180 for you in comparison to where it started.
Matt Watson: Anytime you are sitting around the house in January and February and you are not sure you are going to have a job, it’s tough. Fortunately for me, the Atlantic League is close in my hometown [Lancaster, PA]. Fortunately, things worked out.
A lot of guys when they get older say they actually feel better. I actually do feel better at age 31, almost 32. Some of that is maturity and some of that is physically. I lost some weight and I can move around better. But it was nice to get the opportunity to get back.
OC: Was [former A’s minor league manager] Von Hayes still managing in Lancaster and were there still a number of ex-A’s minor leaguers on that team?
MW: A lot of the ex-A’s farmhands. Jason Perry was there, Ben Fritz and a lot of guys who I had played with in minor league camp and in Sacramento. Tommy Herr was the manager. Von Hayes was in Camden.
OC: Was it easier playing on the team since you knew guys there already?
MW: When you are playing ball a mile from where you went to high school, you are always comfortable. But it was nice to have familiar faces there, guys that I knew and played with.
OC: I know that you left the A’s organization in 2006 to sign with a Japanese team, but how did you get to Korea?
MW: I had just finished ’08 with Toronto broke a bone in my hand at the end of the year and went down to winter ball and played in Mexico and tried to show teams that I was healthy. It was early when I signed with Korea, but I didn’t get any offers. My agent, who I had when I went over to Japan, asked if I wanted to try Korea. I thought that might be another stepping stone to get back to Japan. We had such a good time over there. Unfortunately things didn’t work out there for a bunch of different reasons.
OC: You played for Bobby Valentine [with the Chibe Lotte Marines] right?
OC: How was that?
MW: I enjoyed it. He’s very out-going. He’s a self-promoter and he did well for himself. He was really out-going over there. I don’t know if it was because there were fewer Americans there, but the first day I met him, he took me out to dinner and talked to me all of the time. I’m not sure, I didn’t play for him in the States, so I don’t know what he’d be like here. We enjoyed it.
OC: Did you cross paths with him in the Mets organization at all?
MW: I was in Double-A [with the Mets] when he was the big league manager and I was never at big league camp. That was what everyone assumed when I got over there because Benny Agbayani was there and Matt Franco and Dan Serafini, so they thought he was just taking all old Mets guys, but I had never met him until I got there.
OC: How was the Japan experience?
MW: I enjoyed it. There were some parts of it that were more like work and not as much fun. Long spring trainings, but the baseball is fun. The fans are fantastic. There’s no booing. For a guy like me to go over there, you automatically turn into a celebrity in your hometown. That was a little awkward for me, but you kind of get used to it. They treated our family great. It was a great family town that we were in. You could take the kids out and it was safe. Parks on every other street corner. It was a really nice experience for the whole family.
OC: How did you get back into the A’s organization?
MW: I had just turned down a Double-A job offer from the Angels and I said to my wife, ‘you know what? That might be the last one I get, which is unfortunate because I feel good. My swing is good and I have figured a few things out mechanically.’ Lo and behold, the next night Tommy Herr called me in and said ‘David Forst called and he wants you to call back.’ So I called my agent right away and went home and sort of surprised my wife. It was one of her favorite places that I’ve played. She’s big on the sun and the warm weather. She doesn’t really like the weather in Pennsylvania too much. We were thrilled. They came out [to California] for a month, so they just left. My boys have soccer camps and I want them to have a summer and not be living out of hotels.
OC: The players are different, but the coaches are the same. What was the experience been like being back in Sacramento again?
MW: It was fantastic getting back with Tony [DeFrancesco]. I tried to keep in touch with him. Lost his number and dropped him a couple of e-mails. I was hoping to get back there and I saw that he was back there and Brian McArn was still there as the hitting coach and Rick Rodriguez was there as the pitching coach. So that was comfortable, but the first day that I got in there, it was a little weird. I think you start to realize that you are the veteran of the group. All of these other kids are 22, 23. But it took me about a week and then I felt totally comfortable there.
Tony’s always been fantastic to me. Plays me when I am doing well and plays me against righties and lefties. There is no substitute for that in baseball, just getting in and seeing pitches on a regular basis.
OC: How did Tony tell you that you were being called up?
MW: We were actually at a day game in Reno. My family was there. Actually my mother was in for about three weeks. We had just driven up from Sac. and gotten everything unpacked. It’s getting a little easier as the kids get older. But Tony called me in. I was one of the first ones there. We had a day game and I got in early to get this old body moving and he said, ‘come in here. I want you to look at [Chris] Carter’s swing for me.’ I also see Brian McArn, the hitting coach[, in Tony’s office.] I had been thinking about being a hitting coach and had been working with [McArn] this year, looking at mechanics of different hitters just to see things from a different set of eyes.
But Tony calls me in and he shows me video of Carter’s swing and he says, ‘does this look like a big league swing to you?’ And I said, ‘I’ll be damned if I know what a big league swing looks like. I’ve been trying to get back there.’ Then they played mine, and it was a video of a homerun I had hit to left field. And they said, ‘does this look like a big league swing?’ And I said ‘obviously not.’ And he goes, ‘well, you’d better fix it quick because you are going up.’ So it was a nice way for him to be able to share that with me.
OC: Tell me about hitting your first big league homerun and knowing that now forever on the back of your baseball card you’ll have that one homerun.
MW: A lot of it is getting an opportunity here. Like I said, I’m fortunate that the A’s brought me back and hopefully I’ll get a little longer opportunity this time. Who knows though. I’ve learned that with baseball. But I always felt like I could get one. I kind of wish I could count my Asian ones. There were pitchers I hit them off of there who have come over here and had success.
But it was funny. I just grabbed an old bat from Kevin Melillo, who had played with the A’s a few years back. It was four years old and dry-rotted, but it felt good in BP. I said, ‘I think I’m going swing this one today.’ Someone told me that Rajai Davis had some of the old models, the same ones. I went up to him before the game and I said, ‘do you have a back-up? I have a feeling I’m going to hit the ball on the barrel and this thing is going to break. It’s just that old and dry-rotted.’ So he gave me an extra one and lo-and-behold, I hit the homerun and it barely goes out and it’s probably the shortest one I’ve hit this year so far. I’m running around the bases and then when I pick it up again in the dugout, it’s cracked through the handle. [laughs] I looked over to Rajai and I said, ‘I told you I was going to hit a good one.’ I didn’t think it was going to be a homerun, but I knew I hit one on the barrel and it broke.
It was a nice story. I called Kevin and sent him a text message and told him that he will forever be immortalized in my basement. It ended up working out perfectly because it didn’t go way up in the stands where I would have had to trade to try to get it. It was a nice day to have.