Matt Wieters is a 6-foot-5, switch-hitting catcher who hit over .400 at Georgia Tech. He’ll play for the Honolulu Sharks of Hawaii Winter Baseball, which starts play Saturday, and is a good bet to join seven 2006 ‘Boys of Winter’ who made the big leagues
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With its mid-Pacific location and rosters that stretch from Maine to Misawa, Hawaii Winter Baseball is a different breed from its post-season, minor league contemporaries. So it should come as no surprise that one of the league’s most anticipated arrivals is, himself, a tad different from what we’re used to seeing.
Standing 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighing in at a solid 235 pounds, Matt Wieters is a backstop all right, though not your typical one. The former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket and now Honolulu Shark was both relief pitcher and catcher at his alma mater. And as a switch-hitter he showed impressive control power from both sides of the plate during his three years on campus. That’s now all in the past as the current Oriole farm-hand is champing at the bit to begin play.
No wonder. Since his collegiate career ended in June, Wieters has caught batting practice, lifted weights, has run and spent some time in the batting cage. The only thing he hasn’t done is play in an actual game.
“This is the longest I’ve gone without playing since T-ball,” says Baltimore’s first-round pick. “I may have taken a month off in high school after summer ball, but this is the longest without getting into a game. So I’ve been itching to get going, and Hawaii’s a nice place to get started.”
The Orioles are anxious as well. Although they have not put any pressure on their young prospect, telling him to just work hard and enjoy his stay, the once-dominant franchise that has fallen on hard times did not invest the fifth pick in the draft and a record $6.1 million signing bonus without some expectation of success.
On the team’s website, Orioles’ scouting director Joe Jordan calls Wieters “the best college position player available,” and says that he is expected to develop into a middle-ofthe-order batting threat.
Wieters’ name is sprinkled throughout Georgia Tech’s record book - an impressive feat considering the Yellow Jackets are perennial contenders for the College World Series. For his career, the 21-year-old finished tied for sixth in doubles (54) and seventh in RBI (198) and saves (16). He hit .359 with 418 total bases (No. 13 all-time), is 16th with 35 home runs, 18th with 253 hits and finished his career having played in 169 consecutive games.
He also was named first-team All-America by Rivals.com and first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference in 2007, first-team All-America by Baseball America and second-team All-ACC in 2006, and the ACC Rookie of the Year, Freshman All-America and first-team All-ACC in 2005.
While all the accolades, accomplishments and big contract - courtesy of agent Scott Boras - have brought a lot of attention, Wieters doesn’t feel any of that will matter once he gets to Hans L’Orange Field in Waipahu.
“Once we all get off the plane and start playing on the 29th, we’re all hitting zero and have zero ERAs, so we’re all out there trying to compete for a hit and fight for a win,” he says.
Even with catchers being larger than ever before, bigger is not always better for a position that demands physical toughness with the flexibility to snare wayward pitches and bunts. For Wieters, it has never really been a problem. He’s been doing it all his life.
“My dad always felt that catching was a good way to get started, and I’ve loved it since I was little,” says the young man who obtained his height during a high school growth spurt. “I’ve had no problems as far as my size getting in the way of my catching. As I got taller and taller, I realized that I would have to stretch more and more each day just to stay flexible.”
Wieters comes from an athletic South Carolina family that includes his father, Richard, who played in the Braves and White Sox organizations, and sister Rebecca, a former College of Charleston volleyball player who once schooled the big-time prospect in backyard basketball.
“She was actually taller than me until I was a junior in high school,” he says, recalling the losses. “One day I got to flip the switch on her. It felt pretty good to have bragging rights at the dinner table that night.”
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