Photo: Kayte Henderson. Meadowcreek graduate and South Gwinnett cross country and baseball coach Matt Huffman is the bullpen catcher for the Gwinnett Braves.
Matt Huffman is the bullpen catcher for the Gwinnett Braves and much more. The Meadowcreek graduate is also the head freshman baseball coach and boys varsity cross country coach at South Gwinnett.
Staff writer Ben Beitzel talked to Huffman in this edition of “Getting to Know...” about how to become a bullpen catcher, the difference between his high school players and the ones playing for the G-Braves, Mustangs basketball and how to get Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel to buy you a new glove.
BB: The obvious question is how does one become a bullpen catcher as a high school teacher?
MH: I just sent my resume in and pretty much hounded (former assistant general manager) Bill Blackwell until he agreed to meet with me. He didn’t give me a word until the day before opening day the first season. He called me up and said, ‘Hey, can you do it? The other guy bailed on us.’ I’ve been doing it ever since.
BB: Resumé? What goes on a resumé for bullpen catcher?
MH: I just put my coaching credentials, my playing credentials and stuff and told them I think I can handle the pitches and that was pretty much it.
BB: Why would you want to do this?
MH: I initially wanted to do like a bench coach-type deal. I just wanted to learn more about the game. That’s why I wanted to do it. To learn more about the game, to be around such a high level.
BB: So you caught in high school and college?
MH: No, I played shortstop. I pitched a little in college.
BB: So this was the first time you’d caught, that first day with the team?
MH: Uh ... very little dabbling here and there. Not in a game in college or anything like that. The very first time I caught it was Tommy Hanson actually. (laughs)
BB: That had to be nerve-wracking. The No. 1 prospect.
MH: There was a little shock at first. The star-struck. He was the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball. And they are like ‘Here, you got gear? No? Well wear this.’ It was pretty wild.
BB: Did you drop the first pitch?
MH: I actually did pretty good. I am a lot better now than I was for sure. Throwing it back to the pitcher was hard then. I would stand up every time. I was not used to going down on a knee, I would come up like I was throwing to first every time. Every single time, every pitch. That wore my legs out pretty quick. I learned fast to drop down to a knee.
BB: You are a proud graduate and former basketball player at Meadowcreek, right?
MH: I played basketball through my junior year. Got hurt at the beginning of my senior year, actually at a baseball game, so I only played baseball my senior year.
BB: So were you on the basketball star path until you were derailed by a fluke injury?
MH: I ... don’t ... know. It actually was my best sport until I got hurt after my junior year. But I loved baseball more.
BB: You must have been pretty good to get a scholarship to Piedmont.
MH: When they recruited me they were NAIA when they started recruiting me. When I actually got there they had dropped down to (non-scholarship) D-III, but they still honored the scholarship. They named it an alumni scholarship I believe. Now it is just a D-III school. I wouldn’t have been able to afford a private college if they had not helped me out substantially.
BB: What did you study there?
MH: I was business administration and sports marketing with a minor in religion and philosophy.
BB: That sounds like a teacher’s resumé.
MH: I teach now, yes. (laughing) Obviously. My junior year of college I got offered a baseball coaching job at Westminster Christian in Gainesville. I took that because I knew that was probably going to be my avenue into coaching. That is why I got into teaching, they ended up offering me a teaching job when I graduated.
BB: Did you want to be a teacher or was it coaching that got you teaching?
MH: I definitely wanted to be a coach. It was the coaches in my life that were the most influential people that I had, other than my dad. But coaches were my mentors.
BB: Did your dad coach you?
MH: He did. He coached me into high school and then was a good dad and let the coaches take me and sat back and watched.
BB: That is a unique trait, to sit back and watch.
MH: It’s rare as I am finding as I coach high school. That is rare (laughs).
BB: What’s the transition like going from triple-A bullpen catcher to freshman baseball?
MH: It’s pretty neat. I learn things here and take it back to those kids. Sometimes I get the players to go back to the high school and they have been great doing that. I think the kids are benefiting a lot.
BB: Is it a pretty easy adjustment to watch a homestand here and then go watch your freshmen play?
MH: It is humorous. Every aspect about the game is different. You realize quickly that these guys are freaks of nature at triple-A. To get to this level you have to have some type of skill that is amazing. You are in awe of the stuff that they can do when you compare it to what the general population can do. Even a good high school player, like really good high school player, is nothing compared to one of these guys. Even pitchers, you watch one of these pitchers take BP and you are like, ‘Wow.’ Guys like Mike Minor, he can really swing it. He hit them out in BP, with a wood bat. They are crazy good athletes.
BB: What was the most fun you’ve had in the bullpen?
MH: The water wars (with the in-game entertainment crew) was the most entertaining thing. The ongoing banter throughout the year and then the finale of the last home game. There was a lot of planning involved. There (pointing) is Todd Redmond. He bought the flour for us. Twelve pounds of flour right on Barry Lyle. That was the good group of guys.
BB: Who was the best pitcher you caught?
MH: I’d say the best stuff I saw was (reliever now with the Marlins) Mike Dunn. As far as nastiness. It was hard, movement. I would not want to face Mike Dunn. Coming from the left side and everything would move. He’d say fastball and it would move (a foot). He would say, ‘Sorry’ I was like, ‘They are no touching that. There’s no way.’ 98 mph, like whoosh.
BB: Who hurt the most?
MH: Can I say Luis Valdez (laughing)?
BB: I’ll make a note that he is now Jairo Asencio.
MH: He had a pretty good one, Asencio, you can call him whatever you want to call him. And then Kimbrel obviously. Kimbrel brings it pretty good. Kimbrel broke my mitt three times last year. He replaced it though.
BB: I know I would proudly buy a mitt if I could throw hard enough to break one.
MH: He brings it.
BB: How do you coach and do this?
MH: It’s rough. I get up at 5:30 a.m. get to school and I leave after school, come over here and am here until 11 or 11:30 p.m. I schedule my baseball schedule at South around this. Because it’s the freshman level I can do that. There is just one week where it was pretty tough.
BB: Do you regret not playing catcher?
MH: No, I liked short. Yeah, you get the ball every time when you are catching, but shortstop, I like the range. You have to be an athlete. I liked running stuff down.
BB: Do you have a family?
MH: Just had a boy. Nov. 23, he is five months old. Landon. I met my wife at Piedmont. She swam at Brookwood. She was Erin Smith. She was our athletic trainer at Piedmont that’s how I met her.
BB: Were you injured?
MH: Well ... sort of (laughs). I went in there to get ice and then I kept coming back to get ice. I didn’t need ice. I didn’t get a groin pull or anything like that.