Photography by Dan Austin
Growing up in Lakeland, Matt Diaz and his three brothers were always active in Little League sports. A catcher at Santa Fe Catholic, Diaz followed his older brother Zach to Florida State on a baseball scholarship. After just two years as a Seminole, Diaz was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays, playing in the Major Leagues for nearly 10 years (along with the noteworthy Atlanta Braves).
Though Diaz and his wife, Leslee, lived in Polk County throughout his career, when Diaz retired from the Major League’s post 2013 season, the two returned to Winter Haven. Here, he shares his greatest memories on the field and how he continues to give back to the game.
WH: When did you know that you wanted to play professional baseball? At what point did you realize it had become a possibility and not just a dream?
Matte Diaz: I remember wanting to be a baseball player as long as I can remember. I had seen a sheet from kindergarten with “What do you want to be when you grow up?” on it, and my two answers were a baseball player or a garbage man. Riding on the back of a truck seemed like fun! But the first time it really hit me that I had a chance to play baseball was right here in Winter Haven. My freshman year at Santa Fe, we were playing in the county tournament at Chain of Lakes Stadium. We were facing Lake Gibson, and one of the better pitchers in the county at the time was on the mound. I hit a home run. It was my first high school home run, and it was in a big league spring training stadium off of a pitcher that was being recruited pretty heavily. At that point, I went from thinking I had a chance to knowing I had a chance to at least play baseball beyond high school.
WH: You have three brothers. With all of you so active in the sport, why do you think you were the one that ended up with a career in professional baseball?
MD: That’s a tough one. Zach, the oldest, was the best pitcher by far. Ben, the third, had the most power. Jonny actually received more scholarship money to play baseball than any of us going into college. I do give Zach a ton of credit for my career. I piggy-backed on his success at FSU. He bugged the coaches to come watch me play, and I ultimately went where having an older, well-respected brother as a teammate was a huge advantage heading into my first year.
WH: What did you enjoy most during your time in baseball?
MD: I loved the challenge of it. I loved trying to figure out a way to succeed in a game so full of failure. I loved the locker room even though it wasn’t the easiest place in the world; it was like a forced family. The part that I loved most was also the hardest part.
WH: What was the hardest part?
MD: It was a challenge to get along with so many different guys from different backgrounds and countries, but it really helped me grow as a person.
WH: What was your favorite baseball moment?
MD: My favorite professional moment was probably hitting a home run in Fenway with my dad in the stands. It was hard to hold back my emotions as I thought of how many hours he’d spent with me in batting cages and on baseball fields. My favorite moment in all of baseball was winning the 1995 state championship. My brother Zach pitched the last out. I was catching. Being the first one to meet him on the mound for the final out will always be one of my favorite moments of my life. To this day, in my office I have a poster of me jumping into his arms.
WH: What is the most important lesson you learned during your baseball career?
MD: I learned to control the controllables. In baseball, especially coming up through the minors (and I spent a ton of time in the minors), it’s hard not to get frustrated. I had to learn that all I could control was my approach and my attitude. That lesson has served me well both on the field and off.
“I had to learn that all I could control was my approach and my attitude. That lesson has served me well both on the field and off.”
WH: What are you doing now? How does baseball continue to be a part of your life?
MD: After I retired, I immediately went to work for my financial advisor here in Polk County. I also received a cool opportunity to stay involved with professional baseball by being an analyst for Fox Sports South and Southeast, doing pregame and postgame shows for the Atlanta Braves part time. I wanted to give back to a game that has given so much to my family. I also currently serve as president of Eagle Lake Baseball Association and coach my sons’ teams. In the world of youth baseball that has gone crazy with travel ball [a competitive step up from recreational baseball], I find it gives me a platform to get more kids involved in the game. By coaching my son’s travel team, it gives me the opportunity to help kids and parents put baseball in its proper place. You have to be careful to keep your priorities straight, but travel baseball gives the kids who are a bit more advanced the chance to play a little more.
WH: Why are recreational leagues important for a great community, or any child’s upbringing?
MD: Travel ball is great if you want your child to become a better baseball player, but if you want him to become a better person through baseball, recreational baseball is the best teacher around. In travel ball, sometimes kids play with the same 11 teammates for years. In rec ball, they have to branch out, meet more people, and develop very important life skills like getting along with people from different backgrounds. They learn leadership skills and are forced outside their comfort zone.
“I was able to pass a lot of players more talented than me simply because once they didn’t have to work, they chose not to.”
WH: What advice do you have for kids who aspire to professional baseball?
MD: My first advice is for the kids. Just like I had to learn: control the controllable. Attitude, effort, and reactions are all things you can control. You can’t control if you bat ninth or don’t make the team you want, but you can control how hard you work and how you respond to what you perceive as a bad break. To the parents, I would say, there’s plenty of time to stress later. Enjoy your child. Be available to them when they want to work on their game, but if they are doing it for you because you make them, ultimately they will quit the game. I was able to pass a lot of players more talented than me simply because once they didn’t have to work, they chose not to. My parents and coaches did a great job of getting me to want to work.