Atlanta Braves, Tyler Matzek put on a clinic on perseverance
As a kid, I remember being glued to the television as Tom Glavine pitched a gem against the Indians, and David Justice smashed a solo homerun—giving the Atlanta Braves their first World Series championship. It was a glorious moment, but in a way, it was expected. The Braves of the 1990s were a super team. The Braves of 2021, on the other hand, became underdogs and somehow learned to punch far above their weight.
The 2021 Braves entered the year with high expectations and were loaded with talent, but they languished in mediocrity for much of the season. Their outlook became even murkier as pitching ace Mike Soroka ruptured his Achilles tendon, slugger Marcell Ozuna broke two fingers, and young phenom Ronald Acuña Jr. tore his ACL.
While the Braves still had several All-Star caliber players in the lineup, the injuries were serious setbacks. So, the Braves front office acquired a handful of players—including Joc Pederson who somehow made it fashionable for men to don pearl necklaces—to try to remain competitive. The team subsequently buckled down and made adjustments, but the odds were stacked against them.
At the All-Star break, the Braves were 44-45. Prior to this year, only one team in history has ever won a World Series after posting a losing record at the halfway mark. Moreover, statisticians only gave the Braves a 0.3 percent chance of winning it all.
Despite the long odds, the Braves clawed back and made it to the World Series. Before it began, Joc Pederson wrote, “We might have had our share of injuries, and slipped below some people’s radars, and taken an unconventional path to get to this stage. But we also just might be those [expletive]. And no one’s beat us yet.” His words proved prescient as the Braves took home the World Series trophy in 6 games—making Pederson the pearled prophet, which could provide him a side gig as a psychic.
After 45 years of working in baseball, the victory also gave Braves Manager Brian Snitker his first World Series championship. As they say, good things come to those who wait—and apparently to those who are tenacious. Braves pitcher Tyler Matzek’s story is a microcosm of this lesson.
Matzek was an incredibly promising young pitcher who was a first round draft pick in 2009, but after a few years of pitching in the Colorado Rockies organization, his career took an unexpected turn. Matzek got the “yips,” which is a psychological disorder in which athletes inexplicably lose the ability to perform basic functions, like catching and throwing a baseball. In Matzek’s case, he couldn’t throw strikes, and not long after, he was out of a job.
Instead of abandoning his dream, he worked with a former Navy Seal to cure his yips, but it wasn’t always pretty. “I’d have him stand by the fence and throw the ball at him, or try to throw it at him, and I’d miss by 15, 20, 30 feet,” Matzek said.
In time, his work paid off. He was ready to play ball again, and ended up pitching for an obscure independent baseball team called the Airhogs. He earned about $400 every two weeks and lived in an RV, but he stuck with it. By 2019, he secured another chance to play professional baseball. He eventually joined the Braves organization and is now thriving in the bullpen—or the arm barn, as PETA strangely wants to call it—and garnered a not-safe-for-work nickname that nearly rhymes with his surname.
While Matzek was very good throughout the 2021 regular season, he was masterful in the 2021 postseason. He posted a 1.72 earned run average in 13 appearances. Even when placed in highly stressful situations with runners on base and in front of tens of thousands of screaming spectators, he flourished and was central to the Braves’ victory. Matzek pitched so adroitly in the World Series that someone really needs to check his temperature because nobody can remain that cool under immense pressure without having ice in their veins.
Whatever his temperature, the Braves and Matzek showed true grit in the face of adversity, and it panned out in the end. This should serve as a lesson to all of us to not surrender our goals. If you do, you may miss out on your greatest achievement.
Image credit: Robert Hainer