Game Face

Cardinals’ left fielder and consistent slugger Matt Holliday on dodging the disabled list and getting the job done–on and off the field.

 

If Matt Holliday didn’t admit to dedicating all his energy to perfecting his performance on the field, one might be inclined to classify his baseball prowess as superhuman. It’s not that others haven’t garnered impressive stats and success, but his upward journey has been near-devoid of downs—despite a recent appendectomy he seemed to wish away, returning to the Cardinals’ lineup just over a week later.

Heir to a baseball great (his father, Tom Holliday, is one of the most respected college baseball coaches in the business), Holliday’s innate ultra-athleticism was clear from an early age (he was the star of three different high school teams). So, as many do, he chose to forego college in favor of easing into the “family business”—which translated to signing with the Colorado Rockies in the seventh round of the 1998 Major League Baseball Draft. The deal launched an almost 10 year trajectory with the club, punctuated by team records, a slew of home runs, National League MVP contention, three All-Star titles and one World Series appearance—all of which attracted the attention of the Cardinals, who signed him in 2009.

At the time of our interview, Holliday was just three weeks into his second full season in STL and was already top of mind among fans for his performance in categories that typically define his expertise: batting average, home runs and RBIs. Still, he seemed relaxed, nearly laughing off a question about how he planned to get “pumped” for the night’s game. “Baseball’s not really like that,” he said with a shrug, claiming downtime with teammates bests pre-game rituals and motivational playlists every time. Apparently Jock Jams is only appreciated by those less extraordinary.

ALIVE: How did you first get into sports?
MH: My dad’s been coaching baseball for 30 years. I grew up in Stillwater, Okla., and there wasn’t a whole lot to do besides sports. So, I played basketball, and baseball, and football…that’s pretty much all I did; just sports and spending time with my family. My brother played all sports, and my dad coached baseball; that was pretty much my “growing up.”

ALIVE: Was baseball always “central”?
MH: Yeah, I always liked baseball better than football and basketball, I think because my family was so heavily involved. It was kind of my first love, in terms of sports—I just enjoyed it more than the other sports—and that was probably the easiest way for me to go.

ALIVE:
What players did you look up to?
MH: I knew some of the guys my dad coached at Oklahoma State who went on to play pro baseball—Robin Ventura, Jeromy Burnitz…And I was always a big Cal Ripken, Jr. fan; he was my favorite player as a kid.

ALIVE: Do you have a favorite baseball memory?
MH: It would probably be my freshman year in high school; my brother was a senior, and we got to play on the same team, which was really cool. My mom only had to go to one field that year.

ALIVE:
When you were drafted pre-college, was going pro a difficult decision?
MH: I could have played baseball or football in college, but that was never the plan; throughout high school, I wanted to graduate, to sign and to go play baseball and try to make it to the Major Leagues. So, when the [Colorado] Rockies drafted me [in 1998] and gave me what my dad considered a decent offer, he gave me his blessing to go ahead and do it—to go and start the process and grow up.

ALIVE: Has your dad always offered baseball-related advice?
MH: Yeah, especially then. I mean, he has a lot of experience—especially in the whole baseball world—so he had a lot of great advice. Obviously, as I get older and more experienced, we’ve become more friends; he’s not offering nearly as much advice—although, at times, I need it. He’s very supportive, but he’s a lot more concerned about my kids than my baseball career nowadays.

ALIVE:
Are your kids budding athletes?
MH: They like sports; my oldest is pretty good at baseball, basketball, soccer, football…They’re very athletic, so we’ll see. My daughter is only 18 months; she’s a lot different than the two boys, but they’re all three a lot of fun. I just like being around them and playing around at the house.

ALIVE:
What advice would you give young, aspiring pro athletes?
MH: Work ethic is always important—in any business, not just sports. If it’s something that’s important to you, work at it. I think it’s about constantly working and trying to get better and doing the best you can. If you have a passion for it, put your whole 100 percent into it; that’s what I tell my kids about all things, not just sports.

ALIVE:
How does playing for St. Louis compare to other cities?
MH: I knew it as an opposing player, coming here with the Rockies, that it was always sold out and seemed like a great place to play. So, getting a chance to play for the Cardinals has been awesome. The fans are second to none; it’s the best atmosphere that I’ve played in.

ALIVE:
Tell me about switching to Mickey Mantle-associated No. 7 at the start of last season.
MH: I kind of like single numbers. Obviously, Albert [Pujols] wasn’t giving up [my customary] 5 anytime soon, so I went through the numbers that were available. I thought there was some meaning, some significance in 7—I’m from Oklahoma, Mickey Mantle’s from Oklahoma—so I switched to that number.

ALIVE: What’s your relationship like with [Albert] Pujols?
MH: Albert and I are good friends. I think Albert was pretty helpful in getting me traded over here. You know, I’ve learned a lot from him. As good a player as he is, any chance to play with him, watch him work, watch him up close and personal is quite an honor.

ALIVE:
Does your reputation as a home-run hitter affect the pressure you feel at the plate?
MH: Well, I feel that there’s pressure for me to perform and to produce. Not just necessarily home runs, but getting on base, being a good player and doing things to help the team win; I feel like that’s my job. I’m my biggest critic; I put a lot of pressure on myself. Everything I do is geared around making sure that I can go out there and perform to the best of my ability.

ALIVE:
So, what if you have a bad game?
MH: I think having a wife and kids offers great perspective. I try to leave it at the field and just work harder the next day. It’s a long season; we play a lot of games, so you have a great chance to make up for it the next day, or even the next play, or your next at-bat. You don’t want to get too down on yourself, but—at the same time—I expect a lot out of myself; I try to remain very positive, but I expect to perform better the next time.

ALIVE:
How concerned were you when you found out that you had to have an appendectomy so close to the beginning of the season?
MH: I talked to the trainer, and he said [recovery] could be anywhere from 10 days to two weeks. I thought, “If I can get back in eight, nine, 10 days, hopefully they won’t put me on the disabled list.” So, I called Tony [La Russa] and asked him to give me a chance to see how the surgery and recovery went. Everything went good; I missed seven games, and I’m so glad they didn’t put me on the DL.

ALIVE: What do you still hope to achieve?
MH: My goals are just to get better and be the best player that I can be; to go out and help the team win and find ways to be a good teammate. But they’re not just about being a good baseball player; I want to be a good friend, a good father. Those are the things that are important to me.

 

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Matt Holliday

Matt Holliday

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Matt Holliday in action.

 

Photo credit: Photography by Wesley Law; Feature photos shot on location at The Syndicate. In-game photo by Scott Rovak/St. Louis Cardinals

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