But Matt Clanton could hardly be described as typical, or casual.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Certain parts of this story contain quotes with masked but obvious profanity.)
Taken with a supplemental first-round pick in 2002, Clanton had signed with the Cubs for $875,000 very soon after he was drafted. For the next several years, he battled one injury after another and was eventually released earlier this year.
All told, for the investment of nearly $1 million as a signing bonus, the product of Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif. gave the Cubs a total of two appearances in three-plus injury riddled seasons.
So, what happened? What caused this once-promising right-hander, who was awarded big money to play professional baseball and once had as many as 40 different scouts in attendance to watch him pitch in college, to simply fade into the realm of prospect darkness?
Depending on who you ask, Matt Clanton is what happened.
In His Own Words ...
Clanton himself, however, tells things differently. Now 25 and having relocated back to his native California, he vehemently speaks out against the Cubs and spits fire about his tenure with the organization and the people he encountered there.
To put it mildly, he accuses the Cubs of not only ruining his baseball career, but his life. He claims they accused him of faking injury to avoid playing and that he was the victim of repeated verbal abuse by the Cubs’ front office.
“It was honestly the darkest point in my life,” Clanton says, his voice filled with emotion, cracking in spots. “Jim Hendry once quoted to me, ‘This [organization] is not a democracy. It is a dictatorship. You shut the f--k up.’
“All the while, I was injured on the job and could not physically perform.”
In the 3 1/2 years he spent with the organization, and often through no fault of his own, Clanton seldom talked to reporters and never gave a formal interview to any member of the press.
When he was released, no one asked for his story. No one cared. They had no reason to. In a vineyard lined wall to wall with pitching prospects just ripe for the plucking, Clanton was yesterday’s wine – a once promising athlete long since forgotten by most and formally set free by the organization that awarded him almost $2 million from beginning to end.
Underneath that money, however, Clanton maintains there was a darker, downright cryptic side. He says he lived in constant fear of the Cubs and that he even felt the organization knew of all phone calls he was making.
“They tormented me the whole time because I was never healthy,” Clanton says. “They stepped over the boundaries. They called me a worthless human being, said that I was a piece of sh-t. They were picking on me because they gave me something and it didn’t work out for them. Picture me as a stock option. They invested some money in me and it went belly-up.”
Health-wise, Clanton underwent two separate shoulder surgeries while he was with the Cubs. He also suffered a knee injury while exercising on a treadmill and at one point was plagued by a lower back strain.
From the first Cubs Spring Training that he participated in, things were never right between Clanton and the organization, he says.
“I get drafted in the first round and things are supposed to be great, right?” Clanton asks innocently enough. “No way, man. Jim Hendry and his staff made my life a living hell for three years. They showed no remorse about any of it ... I will die before anyone ever treats me like that again.”
Truth or Fiction?
There are those who are naturally skeptic of Clanton’s allegations against the Cubs. One of the people who knew him best was his former head coach at Orange Coast College, John Altobelli.
Altobelli turns 43 in less than a week and has been the head coach at Orange Coast for the past 14 seasons. He is a three-time Orange Empire Conference Coach of the Year and remembers very well Clanton’s days as a member of his pitching staff.
“We were in a playoff game and just needed to win one more game to advance to the next round,” Altobelli recalled of his 2002 squad. “There were rumors that Matt didn’t want to pitch and jeopardize being drafted any lower because of some shoulder soreness he had been having.”
Around the fourth inning is when things got interesting, Altobelli said.
“We go out on defense. I look out and there’s no pitcher. I said, ‘Where’s Matt?’ And my players all told me that he was down in the bullpen, taking his cleats off and saying he didn’t want to pitch anymore.”
Altobelli then recalled his conversation with Clanton after the game.
“I go down to talk to him and I say, ‘Hey, Matt, what’s going on? Why did you pull yourself out of the game?’ Long story short, he said he wasn’t going to jeopardize his arm or his future for this team. I told him that I didn’t want to pitch him if he was hurt. I told him to let me know if he was hurt, but not to just pull himself out of the game and give up on his teammates.
“About five minutes go by and after about the hundredth time I’d heard that everyone was being selfish, I said, ‘Matt, it’s selfish of you to do what you did.’ And he looked right in my eyes and he said, ‘You’re f--king selfish.’”
Since that day, Altobelli says he has not heard from Clanton.
Before joining the staff at Orange Coast, Clanton had been a prep standout for Fountain Valley High School in California. He quit his varsity squad during his senior season, said the school’s former head baseball coach and current Athletics Director Ron LaRuffa.
“Matt had done a lot of weight-lifting during the off-season prior to his senior year,” LaRuffa recalled. “His velocity had gone down and he was struggling to touch 85 (mph). That became a huge thing for him. He mentally struggled with it and it became the only thing that really mattered to him. He had a problem with his velocity and mentally, it just messed him up.”
LaRuffa said that he sympathized with what Clanton was going through. He suggested the young hurler take a week off from the team in order to gather his thoughts and regain his composure.
“I was just trying to give him a break mentally from everything that he was going through,” LaRuffa said. “The pressure of getting drafted, college scholarships, etc., were all taking their toll. I thought he’d be back in a week. I never planned on kicking him off the team, he just decided to quit. He never came back after that.”
Altobelli said that following the playoff incident at Orange Coast, Clanton’s stock dropped dramatically among many teams’ scouts.
“I had about a dozen teams call me about what happened,” he said. “From my understanding, those teams all basically withdrew his name from the draft after what he did to us. To my knowledge, the Cubs were one of the few teams that never called, and I assume never heard about what happened.”
But even if the Cubs were aware of Clanton’s antics, the organization had given a second chance to pitchers with far worse reputations than Clanton’s in the past.
Such was the case in 1999, when the team selected Ben Christensen with their first-round draft pick. Christensen had deliberately thrown at an opposing batter in the on-deck circle of a college game for Wichita State University. The incident ultimately spelled the end of that player’s career. Christensen felt the batter was timing his pitches.
Praise for Clanton
Both of Clanton’s former coaches had several good things to say about their one-time student.
“He was a good kid for us,” LaRuffa said. “He just got it in his head that in order to be drafted, he had to be throwing in the 90s. That’s what screwed him up his senior year. He never got into any real trouble. He came from a good family and had good parents.”
Altobelli said, “I liked Matt. I still like Matt. I don’t have any bones to pick with him aside from what he did to our team that year. We were the ones who basically got him back into baseball and gave him a second chance.”
Altobelli added that he was most impressed by Clanton’s work ethic, right up until the very end.
“Matt was a guy that always worked hard,” he said. “Up until that day, I never had a problem with him. When he would pitch, he was very high-strung and very emotional. He had a great arsenal and did everything well. Then, I think the money that he and his agent had been discussing kind of got to him.”
Clanton’s agent at the time, Steve Springer, declined to comment on his former client. Springer himself had a brief professional career and was drafted by the New York Mets.
The Cubs’ Response
When informed of Clanton’s allegations, Cubs Director of Player Development Oneri Fleita said on behalf of the organization, “We have turned the page. We wish Matt well.”