First-time All-Star Wieters has emerged as leader for Orioles
Catcher's preparation, intensity have carried him into Midsummer Classic
Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, a member of the American League All-Star team, looks on during Gatorade All-Star Workout Day at Chase Field in Phoenix. (Getty photo / July 11, 2011)
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He made baseball cards of the U.S. presidents for a fourth grade history project. He traded his Nintendo video game system, the Christmas gift he had to have, for a golf club.
His dad, a former minor league pitcher, taught Wieters to switch-hit about the time the toddler could pick up a plastic bat.
So it was a big day in the Wieters' household when the 4-year-old could finally play on a recreational soccer team. When his family arrived at the initial meeting and practice, Matt stayed by his mom's side. When the rest of the kids followed the coaches onto the field, the boy remained on the sideline, refusing to move.
"No one could coerce him," his mother, Pam, said. "But then, after watching for a while, he ran out onto that field. And then he never quit running."
Roughly two decades later, Wieters is a multimillionaire professional athlete, a first-time All-Star and the Orioles' lone representative in Tuesday night's game in Phoenix. The 25-year-old has been a shining light in what has been another desolate baseball season in Baltimore.
In a sense, though, Wieters is still that cautious boy, waiting until the time is right before asserting himself.
"He's not a talker. He's always been a listener and a watcher, even at home," Pam Wieters said. "He didn't want to be a part of anything until he could watch it, understand it. And then he would go in 100 percent. That's how he has always been."
In just his second full season as a big leaguer and fourth in professional baseball, Wieters, with his easy laugh, dry wit and impeccable study habits, has emerged as the soft-spoken but intense leader of a relatively inexperienced pitching staff.
"He is just very attentive for being a young player, and so I think that is the biggest thing. The calmness he shows, the confidence that he has and what he does," Orioles bench coach and catching instructor John Russell said. "To be that far advanced in the situations of the game, game-calling, working with your staff on fundamentals — he has excelled in those areas. And that's why it is going to be fun to continue to watch how much better he does get."
Wieters, 6 feet 5 and 225 pounds, leads the majors in caught-stealing percentage with an impressive 44 percent (24 of 54 thrown out), and he has not allowed a passed ball in 656 innings behind the plate this season — the only qualifying catcher with that distinction.
Offensively, he hasn't excelled, but he's on pace to set career highs in several categories and owns a better average with runners in scoring position (.383 in 69 plate appearances) than any other full-time catcher. In the first half, he batted .264 with eight homers and 34 RBIs. But those around him say you can't measure Wieters' contributions purely with statistics.
"One of the reasons you like him so much is that he has such a respect for the game and his teammates," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He came in here with all of these lofty expectations that nobody could have lived up to. But he brings what he brings every day, I think, because he cares so much."
Any story about Wieters, All-Star or otherwise, is incomplete without mentioning the expectations. A two-time All-American at Georgia Tech, he compiled a career .359 average in three seasons while also saving 16 games as the Yellow Jackets' closer.
He was drafted by the Orioles with the fifth overall pick in 2007 — just the second catcher (along with the Seattle Mariners' Matt Clement) taken in the top five since the Minnesota Twins selected Joe Mauer No. 1 overall in 2001. Wieters received a then-record $6 million to sign with the Orioles and breezed through the minors, hitting 32 homers and 31 doubles in 169 games and earning the scouting moniker of "Mauer with Power."
His call-up to the major leagues was announced during an in-game telecast on club-owned Mid-Atlantic Sports Network by president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail — a flashy move by a conservative executive. Wieters' debut, on May 29, 2009, drew an announced crowd of 42,704 to Camden Yards, roughly 30,000 more than the previous night's attendance.
"I think if you are going to pick someone high and give them [an] over-slot amount of money, there are going to be high expectations on you," Wieters said. "I don't know if they were any higher than they should have been. I have always had high expectations for myself, whether I was the first pick or the 800th. I have always expected myself to succeed at this level."
How high was the Wieters' bar?
This spring, Baseball Prospectus, an online and print organization dedicated to statistical analysis, listed the biggest draft disappointments of all time and included Wieters, though he had had only 800 big league at-bats (hitting .266 with 20 homers) at the time.