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PAWTUCKET â Matt Spring is a career minor-league catcher who gets it.
You wonât find his name mentioned in the same way as acclaimed youngsters Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart, two under-25 prospects who are viewed by many as potential catchers-of-the-future for the rebuilding Boston Red Sox.
Meanwhile, Spring sits three months shy of his 30th birthday, and is in the midst of his first extended stay at the Triple-A level with the PawSox.
His own days as a perceived up-and-comer are over, and going forward his career will only be seen through the prism of what is, rather than what could be. Minor league veterans such as Spring are expected to stand off to the side while attention is paid toward the prospects still on the rise. At the same time they are expected to keep their heads held high, never sulk and never question why the spotlight isnât shining on them.
Spring himself is open about his place on the roster. The Arizona native understands that for starters, you need patience in order to survive as long as he has in the minors.
âEverybody goes from being a prospect to not being one. Itâs a hard lesson to learn and happened one of my last years with Tampa Bay,â said Spring, a fourth-round pick of the Rays in 2004. âIf you donât accept or embrace the idea, the game will just weed you out. Having a negative attitude or worrying about things you canât control, itâs not going to get you anywhere, not to mention wear you down.â
But that self-awareness hasnât dulled his competitiveness, or made him alter his approach to the game. Make no mistake, Sping is still a ballplayer at heart who loves to play the game and remains a believer in his own abilities.
âI come to the field every day expecting to be in the lineup. If Iâm not, I just do what I need to in order to be ready for the next time that I am in the lineup,â Spring said. âIf you have a negative attitude and you get the chance to play, youâre pressing and trying to hit a six-run home run with no one on base. That kind of stuff doesnât happen.
âObviously itâs not what I want, but if Iâm not okay with it, Iâll either not have a job or be miserable in the job that I have.â
Most followers of minor league baseball are acquainted with players according to the exposure they receive on various âprospect lists,â or in ever-present trade rumors. Despite Springâs presence in the Red Sox organization since 2011, odds are that mentioning his name among most fans would lead to awkward pauses and head scratching.
Nevertheless, the backstop is one the best ballplayers you could ask to have on your side, at least according to Pawtucket manager Ken Boles.
âHaving Matt last year [in Double-A Portland] -- heâs the best guy Iâve ever had in the clubhouse on any team. That speaks volumes about his character because this is such a competitive environment,â Boles said. âI canât begin to tell you what a plus he is and the energy he brings. He does not have a bad day.â
Not to mention, Spring can still make professional pitchers think twice about challenging him at the plate. Despite his ânon-prospectâ status and .215 career batting average, Spring has put together some productive years in Bostonâs farm system. He hit 11 home runs in only 47 games between High-A Salem, Portland and Pawtucket in 2011, and in 2013, he earned a spot on the Eastern League All-Star team. This year he sports a .492 slugging percentage and has made the most of his recent wave of regular playing time with Pawtucket, slugging two home runs in his past three starts heading into Mondayâs game against Columbus.
But Spring feels that perhaps his most important role, as someone with a decade-plus in pro ball, is that of mentor to young men -- who may or may not go on to more promising careers, depending on how they fare during their time in the minors.
âI think the one thing thatâs kept me here and not go to another team and restart another reputation is the way Iâm in the clubhouse, especially in Double A with the younger players,â Spring said. âI donât want to be their dad but to just help them out. If I can teach them something that I learned in big-league camp or Triple A, then theyâll be ahead of the curve.â
Boles said that approach is a rare and valued commodity in the minor leagues, oftentimes a challenging cut-throat environment where players can be resentful of othersâ success, since it ultimately may come at their own expense.
âOne night on the bench, he was the first one up to congratulate Dan Butler after he blocked a ball in the dirt. He takes care of the younger players and protects them. If someone doesnât come in with the right frame of mind, he gets them there,â Boles said. âThat speaks volumes of his character, but heâs not lying down. Heâs on a mission to get to the big leagues just like everyone else.â
As far as someday finding work in Boston, Spring knows that he will need plenty of breaks. As long as the more highly-touted Vazquez and Swihart are around (the latter joined the PawSox on Monday), they are going to receive the first crack at earning major-league jobs.
Spring is very familiar with both players, having served as a Double-A back-up to Vazquez last season and likewise with Swihart this year before getting promoted to Pawtucket on July 10.
âI think the both of them are going to have great big-league careers. Theyâve come a long way as far as a maturity level behind the plate,â said Spring before getting into what makes Vazquez and Swihart special in their own right. âVazquez has had a lot of great mentors down in Puerto Rico, but he also pays attention as to how other people are having success. He could always throw, but he watched and learned and became an excellent pitch caller and blocker. Heâs done a good job as far as controlling a staff.
âOn the flip side, Blake will ask you a million questions until your ears bleed. Theyâre all good questions and thatâs how he goes about it. Heâs also an unbelievable athlete at a position where itâs hard to show athleticism,â Spring expounded further. âWhether itâs making a play in front of the plate that every catcher is telling the pitcher to throw to first, heâs figured out a way to let his athleticism play.â
It speaks volumes to his own baseball IQ and maturity that Spring continues to stick around the Red Sox at a time when the organization is flush with catching options. While heâs far from ready to have the curtain lowered on his career, he does acknowledge that he has thought about how he could remain in baseball even after his playing days are done. If such a scenario is to happen, thereâs no doubt that heâs picked a organization that has appreciation for his know-how.
âOne of our strengths in this organization is developing starting pitching. Matt guides and leads them while working with the catchers,â Boles said. âThis is definitely a top guy to have around.â
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