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Ever since second baseman Mark Mathias could stand, he could play baseball.
It became as regular a part of his childhood as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Watching the game, learning the game and even traveling to play it became the norm for the junior from Fremont, California.
He made his first trip to Cooperstown, New York, at 12 years old — a baseball rite of passage. In town for yet another tournament, however, a young Mathias did more than just cast a fog of breath on the legendary display cases inside the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“We were down three, it was 8-5 in the last inning of the championship,” he recounts. “I remember there was a rule where you could take the designated hitter out and go straight to your leadoff hitter and our coach decided to do that. The leadoff hitter, it turned out, was me. I hit a home run to tie it and then we went on to win the championship.”
A crowning moment in the youth of most baseball players, merely a step in the right direction for Mathias.
Soon after Mathias began his tenure at Irvington High School, he excelled as an ace pitcher, plus defender and superb hitter. He was quickly noticed by the Area Code team for the Oakland A’s, where he competed against the best in the nation. That’s where Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee and company first noticed him.
“I talked to one of the assistant coaches and said, ‘This is a guy that should get a tryout,’ and after that Mark did all the rest,” Lee said.
Recruited for his fielding and hitting, Mathias recalls being excited to leave the every-fifth-day duties of a pitcher for the daily play of a position player.
But signing the scholarship to attend Cal Poly meant his run as an everyday player would come to an end. Denver Chavez, the incumbent second baseman for the Mustangs who would go on to be taken in the 30th round of the 2013 MLB draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks after a stellar junior campaign, stood in his way.
Mathias appeared in just 16 games during the 2013 season, receiving only 40 at-bats and tallying just eight hits and five runs en route to a .200 batting average.
“We didn’t know what was in store for him,” Lee admits. “He had the limited playing time freshman year and then went out in the summer to keep training and, again, nothing special. He came back the fall of his sophomore year still, even then, didn’t quite see what he’s turned out to be.”
A roadblock at first, Chavez turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the learning Mathias.
“I was at the bottom of the totem pole,” Mathias recalls. “I was ‘the guy’ in high school, and I felt like I was always that guy, but I tried to make the best out of it and talk to (Chavez) as much as I could. A lot of the mental aspects of the game that I know now really just came from being around him and picking his brain.”
Whatever Chavez told him over the course of the 2013 season worked.
Mathias stepped into the starting role at second base in 2014 and exploded for one of the best seasons ever recorded by a Cal Poly second baseman. During his sophomore year, Mathias recorded 210 at-bats and finished hitting an overall .386 — good for 20th in the NCAA — while scoring 48 runs on his way to becoming the Big West Conference Field Player of the Year and being named to the Rawlings All-West Region first team.
“He just caught fire,” Lee said. “His confidence level with his baseball skills went to a different level, and it happened very quickly. So, from that point on and the end of the summer following, he just went from a good college baseball player to one of the best in the country.”
The play not only earned Mathias NCAA accolades and helped the Mustangs to their historic NCAA Regional-hosting run, but it earned him a tryout to the collegiate USA national team, where he travelled to compete with the best players in the country for the chance to represent his nation in a 28-game summer season.
“I felt like a small fish in a big pond,” Mathias said. “There were so many guys who were so self-aware and kind of cocky. But one of my biggest things is staying confident but not showing it too much.”
The field, which included some of the biggest names and highest prospects from college baseball’s most storied blue-blood programs, was not always as aware of him as he was of them.
“I went into the tryout and everyone’s asking, ‘Hey, what school are you from?’ and coming from Cal Poly, which is definitely a smaller community, a lot of them asked, ‘Hey, where is that?’ or, ‘Are you Division I?’” Mathias would respond with, “Yeah, we were 47-12 last year, actually, and we were ranked No. 1 in the nation at one point,” and keep grinding on the field.
Sixteen days and 16 different hotels later, the tryout was over and it was finally decision time.
The junior from Northern California awaited his fate.
“They looked at me and just said, ‘Hey, you made it,’ and, I mean, it was probably one of the best feelings of my life.”
Finishing with a .263 batting average, a team-high 19 walks and one of just two players on Team USA to start all 28 games (he failed to reach base in only two of those), the junior more than proved he could hang.
But as it sometimes goes, the monumental experience was not without growing pains, and the big step forward in his career was quickly followed by two steps back.
“My throwing arm was just sore around my shoulder all summer, and by the end of it things weren’t getting better, so I got an MRI at the end of November,” Mathias said. “That’s when they found the tear in my labrum.”
A preseason first-team D1Baseball.com All-American, second-team Baseball America Preseason All-American and second-team National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association All-American, Mathias learned he’d spend training camp and at least the first month of the season doing the thing he hates the most: watching his team take the field from the dugout.
“I was pretty down because this was supposed to be my year to go,” he said. “It’s a young team this year and these guys know I’m a captain and, yeah, just not a good feeling at all.”
Fast forward a few months and a lot of physical therapy later, Mathias was doing everything he could to get back to playing. And while he couldn’t quite use his throwing arm in game play yet, Mathias, in the eighth game of Cal Poly’s season — a one-game contest against Bakersfield at home — was finally penciled back into a starting lineup, leading off as the designated hitter.
“He used the setback to become a better player in the long run,” Lee said of the decision. “He always looked at things in a positive manner, and he just continued to lead by example, which is hard to coach, so it was great to see him get the chance to contribute again.”
“He’s just a leader. Even when he wasn’t playing early in the season, when he talked, players listened.”
Mathias went 2-for-4 at the plate against Bakersfield, driving in one run and scoring three times himself as he helped lift the Mustangs to a 13-2 win, ending a three-game losing streak and helping right the ship of a team that had already been swept twice just two weeks into the season.
Now, heading into this past Sunday’s contest against Oregon State, Mathias has notched a .364 batting average, 18 runs scored and an on-base percentage of .432. The junior remains resigned to designated hitter duties.
“I just think about what I can work on with the team, you know,” Mathias said of his limited role. “I try to get us wins rather than have us be just a set of individuals, and that’s what I try to promote: just playing pitch to pitch and not thinking too much about the end of the season.”
What the end of the season may bring, nobody knows.
While the Mustangs look to repeat last year’s playoff run, Mathias tries to block out the noise and press clippings of scouts who have ranked Mathias as high as 34th among NCAA juniors for the upcoming June MLB draft, where Chavez went and where Mathias is no doubt headed.
But for now, Mathias’ career is back to where it all began. Learning to walk, wiffleball by wiffleball, pitch by pitch, one step at a time.
“I try to keep all that as far out of my head as possible,” he says. “I’m just thankful and humbled being where I’m at right now, playing at this school, at this level, with these teammates.”