Matt Stairs Emerges as Phillies' Unsung Hero in Game Four

Mark KriegelCorrespondent IOctober 14, 2008

Chances are, even the most devout seamheads among you wouldn't know Matt Stairs if you bumped into him.

Even in uniform—even in the post-game interview room after the Phillies went up 3-1 over the Dodgers in the NLCS—he wore a pleasantly anonymous look.

Matt Stairs doesn't look like a player—certainly not one who'd hit the game-winning home run—so much as a coach.

He's middle-aged and thick, not muscular in the way of the previous generation of steroid superstars. The hair protruding from his cap is gray. He's Canadian, which is to say that if you've ever heard him speak (and, again, most of us have not), he sounds kind of funny. "About" comes out "aboot."

At 40, Matt Stairs has been playing baseball for money half his life. Starting in 1989: West Palm Beach, Jamestown, Rockford, Jacksonville, Harrisburg, Indianapolis, Montreal, Ottawa, Chunichi, New Britain, Pawtucket, Boston, Edmonton, Oakland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Texas, Detroit, Toronto and, as of August 30, Philadelphia.

After passing through waivers, the Phillies acquired him for a player to be named later (a player whose name turned out to be Fabio Castro). Stairs said he'd be glad to pinch-hit. Of course. What else was he going to do?

"It's something I look forward to," he said. "To get an opportunity in a situation where it's an important time in the game."

Then again, it's not as if coming in off the bench late in a game necessitates modifications in his hitting style. With Stairs, the goal remains delightfully consistent, whether it's the bottom of the ninth or batting practice.

"My whole career, even back in the early days when I signed back whenever with Montreal, my approach was to hit the ball out of the ballpark," he said.

So much for the science of hitting, the craft of contact. Even in batting practice, said Stairs, "I try to hit every ball out ... I'm not going to lie, it's fun."

In other words, his guiding precepts are the same as the guy attired in polyester BIKE shorts and knee pads for softball Saturdays. Difference is, this wasn't a keg league in Central Park.

As it happened, Matt Stairs came to the plate with two out in the eighth inning of a 5-5 tie in the fourth game of the series at Dodgers Stadium. Jonathan Broxton, Joe Torre's new ace closer, was brought in to face him. Broxton's fastball has been clocked at 101 mph.

As Stairs recalled the at-bat: "Fastball inside. Fastball away. I guess he threw it behind me. Threw me a slider down and underneath. Threw me a two-seamer to the right."

Now the count was 3-1. Another fastball, bearing down on him at 95 mph.

"Charlie always says, throw the head and get it out there," said Stairs.

The head of the bat, he meant—"Charlie" being Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.

"He was able to catch up to Broxton," said Manuel. "Which is quite a feat."

Speaking of feet, the ball traveled well over 400, landing midway up the right field bleachers.

The crowd was silent. Not quiet. Silent. None of the 56,800 in attendance — even the well-known Dodger aficionado Barbra Streisand — knew what to do.

This being Hollywood, the evening had been built around a single star. And as everyone with even a passing interest in the Dodgers now knows, that star's name is Manny Ramirez.

His at-bats have become events in Chavez Ravine. Monday night was no exception, either, as each of his plate appearances delivered the crowd from its natural lethargy. (This isn't meant as a cheap shot at Dodgers fans, not at all. But just understand that they give you the impression that Xanax has been approved for over-the-counter use.)

Manny didn't disappoint: three walks, two of them intentional, an RBI base hit, and a double. The fans were happy. Barbra was happy. The home team would not lose.

But on a night for the star, in a town of stars, it was the perennial understudy who took the final bow.

Matt Stairs made it look as easy as batting practice. You could read the crowd's mind, the fans asking themselves, "Who was that guy?"

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