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Minor league mentor: Veteran Matt Spring influences young pitchers, catchers with passion

08.13.14 at 5:20 pm ET
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PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Given the way Chad Epperson talks about one of the catchers he oversees in his duties as Red Sox catching coordinator, one would think that he is praising the work of a major league star or at least a veteran. Epperson’s passion for the backstop is evident in his voice as his eyes widen at the mere mention of the name.

“He’s one of my all-time favorites,” Epperson said with a big grin across his face. “He just makes my job easier.”

The remarks by Epperson, who has been a hitting coach, manager and now catching coordinator in the Red Sox system for parts of 13 seasons, aren’t directed at Jason Varitek or Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Christian Vazquez or Blake Swihart. Instead, his beams at the mention of 29-year-old minor league veteran Matt Spring.

Spring, whom the Red Sox signed prior to the 2011 season as a minor league free agent, is a 10-year veteran of the minors who has played at nearly every level of the Red Sox minor leagues, from Single-A Salem (Va.) in the Carolina League to Triple-A Pawtucket in the International League.

“[Spring] just gets it. He has a passion second to none,” Epperson said. “He understands the role that he is in. He loves coming to the field and putting on the uniform. You combine those things with the experience and watching his teammates, being able to watch the work ethic that he does, this guy is always working.”

In his four years in the Red Sox organization, Spring has worked into his own niche. As a player two years older than the average age in Triple-A, Spring has experienced much more than the average minor leaguer.

Many of the young players look up to Spring as a mentor-type figure. With the flood of young pitching and catching talent in the Red Sox farm system, Spring has served as a guiding figure through the development of players such as Anthony Ranaudo, Matt BarnesVazquez and Swihart. Spring’s wealth of experience immediately commands respect.

He got called up [from Portland] and it didn’t even skip a beat,” Ranaudo said. “He walked in and he was immediately one of the clubhouse leaders. That’s the respect that you’re talking about.”

While Spring is now viewed as a clubhouse leader when he sets foot in a minor league clubhouse, there was a time when the 2004 fourth-round pick of the Rays was bitter about no longer being viewed as a prospect.

There were really one or two ways to take it,” Spring said. “You embrace it or you let it kill you.”

A LEAGUE OF HIS OWN

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Spring signed a minor league contract with the Red Sox in 2011 after spending his prior career in the Rays organization. (Jillian Souza/Pawtucket Red Sox)

Five years into his career, Spring advanced as far as Double-A Montgomery, where he hit .248/.314/.431 with nine home runs, 30 RBIs and 12 doubles. Coming off a solid performance in 2008 in both Double-A and the Arizona Fall League, Spring expected to go into the season with the opportunity to play full time.

The Rays had different plans. The team claimed another catcher off of waivers and Spring was quickly relegated to the backup role. At that point, Spring started to come to the realization that he was no longer viewed as a priority player within the Rays organization.

“It beat me up for a little while,” Spring said. “Then I realized that it’s not me. I’m not  a negative person and I’m not good at hanging my head and being quiet and not talking to everybody and not keeping it loose in the clubhouse. After a little while, I thought, ‘This isn’t who I am. I can’t keep acting like this.’ It was starting to bring me down, much less the people around me.”

At that point, Spring embraced the role he found himself in. His ability to serve as a player-coach figure for the young pitchers and catchers and his infectious positive attitude carried him through his time with the Rays. When he signed with the Red Sox as a minor league free agent before the 2011 season, Spring brought that same attitude to the table, serving as a mentor for many of the players.

Spring was one of the first major influences on Ranaudo’s professional baseball career. Spring’s tenure with the Single-A Salem Red Sox in 2011 overlapped with Ranaudo’s first year in professional baseball after the righty was drafted in the supplemental first round out of LSU the previous summer. Ranaudo fondly recalls how Spring helped him make the transition to life as a full-time baseball player.

“What I’ve learned the most from him is just learning how to call a game,” Ranaudo said. “I look at which pitches he throws in what counts, and after the game I go to Matt and sit down with him and ask him why he called that pitch there and ask him what he saw that I didn’t see, because it worked. Knocking on wood, I don’t think I’ve had a bad start with Matt. It’s fun to work with him because we are on the same page and he explains certain things about different swing patterns or different patterns that you fall into during a game.”

Spring’s influence on the young pitchers is apparent. Ranaudo says that he views the catcher as an older brother. Matt Barnes views Spring as the prototype of how a player should carry himself in a clubhouse. Spring says he tries to lead the young players by example.

If they have questions, I’m there to help them out any way that I can,” Spring said. “When our catching coordinator is not there, I try to help them any way that I can and try to instill whatever knowledge I can in them. All of those guys are really good players and they have a lot of talent. It’s just a matter of helping them a little bit here and there with something that they maybe would not have gotten at that level.”

Ranaudo says that on the field Spring has played a huge role in his development as a pitcher. The righty remembers one specific game when Spring’s ability to instill confidence in a pitcher carried him through an outing.

Last year, Matt caught me in Trenton when I was in the middle of May and I was throwing the ball well. I had a lot of anxiousness to get out on the mound and I had a lot of people coming to the game,” Ranaudo said. “There was a lot of pitches that I had in my glove that might have been a risky call at certain times, but Matt puts those pitches down when I have them in my glove and that’s the confidence that I’m talking about. I’m a little unsure about this because I’m still learning the league and still learning hitters and stuff, but the fact that he puts it down and does it so confidently, I feel really good with that pitch. It makes you want to execute and elevate your game a little bit.”

Barnes said that Spring’s confidence is infectious.

He’s very vocal and very positive when he’s catching you. If you hit your spot or make your pitch, he lets you know,” Barnes said. “Even in bullpens, he’s encouraging, moving side to side, he helped you along in that process. He’s definitely a very confident guy and makes me feel good.”

Epperson said that having Spring’s influence is incredibly beneficial to the young players.

He’s so unselfish. It’s unbelievable,” Epperson said. “This guy will put anybody in front of him. They are first. With Swihart, he caddied for him. Anything he needed, boom, boom, boom. It was almost to the point where you had to remind Springer that he was still playing, too, and that he still needed to work on his game. We’re still pushing you to be a big league player. You’ve got to remind him of that because that’s the type of person that he is.”

CHASING MAJOR LEAGUE DREAMS

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The 29-year-old Spring still hopes to play in the majors someday. (Jillian Souza/Pawtucket Red Sox)

Spring certainly looks the part of a major league catcher. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder has a stocky build that  blends in with his catching gear. Spring has long, curly, dirty blond hair, reminiscent of the hairdo Saltalamacchia fashioned during the Marlins catcher’s tenure with the Red Sox. A goatee that would have certainly fit right in with the 2013 World Series champions decorates Spring’s chin.

That elusive stint in the majors, let alone a World Series ring, has yet to come for Spring. There are plenty of obstacles against him making his debut. He is behind a plethora of catchers in the organizational depth chart, currently serving as the back-up catcher in Pawtucket behind Swihart after the call-up of Dan Butler to the majors. For Spring, there is no guarantee that he will even play next year, given the series of one-year minor league contracts.

The insecurity of year-to-year deals lurks behind Spring daily. His inspiration to chase his dream, however, is laced around his neck. He wears a chain that holds his wedding ring, a daily reminder of why he plays baseball.

The biggest thing is how much support I get from my family,” Spring said. “There is no negativity coming from them, so it’s easier for me to not have to necessarily worry about that. I make good money as far as the real world is concerned in the minor leagues and provide for my family that way. The uncertainty is hard sometimes.”

Spring certainly still wants to fulfill his dream of playing the majors. While he isn’t quite sure how often he thinks about the dream, he knows he just needs to take advantage of the opportunities presented to him while applying one of the major lessons he learned as a young player.

“I try not to focus on things that I couldn’t control as a young player and not worry about who is in front of me and who is behind me,” Spring said. “Everybody has to learn that lesson the hard way or learn it eventually. Obviously, I’d love to have four or five years in the big leagues, but I can’t focus on that. If I start focusing on that, it’ll bring negative to the positive that I try to exude on a daily basis. I love coming here everyday. Who wouldn’t?”

When Spring finally accepted that he was no longer a priority prospect, he began to feel much happier about where he was in his baseball career. Spring continues to make the best of the situation that he is in, thinking about the day-to-day grind rather than the big picture. He is, after all, playing baseball for a living, something he says he is grateful for every day.

I don’t have the best cards in my hand, but I’m going to play them like they’re good,” Spring said. “I’ve just got to keep doing that, and one of these days I’ll get my shot and I’ll be able to take advantage of it.”

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