A member of a celebrated athletic family in Stillwater, Okla., Matt Holliday chose baseball over football

Oct 8 2009 - 5:44pm

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(The Associated Press) St. Louis Cardinals' Matt Holliday slides across home plate to score on a single by Yadier Molina against the Colorado Rockies in the first inning of a baseball game in Denver on Sept. 26.
(The Associated Press) St. Louis Cardinals' Matt Holliday slides across home plate to score on a single by Yadier Molina against the Colorado Rockies in the first inning of a baseball game in Denver on Sept. 26.

ST. LOUIS -- People in Stillwater, moreover people in Oklahoma, won't soon forget a November evening in 1997, when Stillwater High trailed Tulsa Union 42-21 with slightly more than 6 minutes remaining in a Class 6A state playoff football game.

What happened next under Friday night lights around Hamilton Field is among the 100 greatest moments in Oklahoma sports history, as listed by the Daily Oklahoman. What happened next was a surreal moment for Josh Holliday, a celebrated alum who watched from the grandstands. What happened next transformed his younger brother, the Pioneers' quarterback, from sandlot stud to local legend.

In a matter of five and a half minutes, Matt Holliday threw two scoring passes and guided his team to three touchdowns. Final score: Stillwater 43, Tulsa Union 42. Cue the Jack Buck "I don't believe what I just saw" sound bite.

"It was just one of those performances where you watched somebody take control of the field and do some things that you knew weren't normal. I'll always remember that game," said Josh, who at the time was a slugging catcher on the Oklahoma State baseball team, back to root for his kid brother and his old high school.

"To me, that was a moment that, if you asked them, I think anybody who was at that game that night would remember it pretty clearly. As a young athlete, you watch and you say, 'That's not a normal performer. That's a pretty amazing guy."

Matt Holliday's path to a professional sports career has been highlighted in yellow marker. He grew up in a Midwest college town where his father, Tom Holliday, was head baseball coach at the university, where his brother Josh was a high school and collegiate star, where his uncle Dave also had coached at the university and gone on to become a major league scout for the Colorado Rockies.

The name "Holliday" was an athletic brand in Stillwater, familiar and formidable to all. The shoes were extra large, but the shoes were a snug fit for Matt.

"He was huge when we were kids," said Brian Jones, video coordinator for the Rockies, who grew up with Matt in Stillwater. "When we were kids, he was always the biggest guy in the team photo, even though he was younger than everyone else. I think one year in middle school there were weight limits in football, so he couldn't carry the ball. He had to play on the line one season."

Jones remembered that whenever the gang got together for pickup football, Matt was required to play quarterback for both sides. "No question, it was only fair," Jones said. "If he was on one team, it wasn't even fun for the other team because you weren't going to win.

"So he was quarterback for both sides, which made it more fun for everybody else. It was that way with all the sports we played, because he was good at every sport -- basketball, football, baseball -- whatever team he was on, they were going to win."

Football or baseball?

Athletically and intellectually, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Matt Holliday is not your normal performer, Then, as now, he is an amazing guy. Consider the path he chose to his vocation, the path of most resistance.

As documented, he was a blue-chip kid, big and strong, recruited in multiple sports by multiple collegiate sports factories. He set a state record by throwing 35 TD passes as a junior. The same year, as a junior third baseman for the Pioneers, he batted .375 with 12 home runs. He finished his prep football career with 6,211 passing yards and 68 TD passes, and during his senior year at Stillwater, he was named the region's Gatorade Player of the Year in both sports.

Many of the schools pursuing him told Matt and his family he would be best served putting aside baseball and focusing on his primary meal ticket -- football. Then Chicago Bears coach Dave Wannstedt, a boyhood acquaintance of Tom Holliday's, watched tape of Matt and told his dad he looked like "a combination of (Dan) Marino and (John) Elway."

Matt listened to the Notre Dames, Florida States, Oklahomas, et al, then he signed a letter of intent to play baseball and football at Oklahoma State. He would stay home, play for his dad, be reunited as a freshman with his senior brother Josh. It all made perfect sense.

But Matt Holliday, who prefers to listen rather than speak, who contemplates before he communicates, who keeps his head on the same level plane where he keeps his lethal bat, was wrestling with his 18-year-old gut. Football represented immediate gratification, no doubt. The celebrity of a big-time college atmosphere was undeniable; the seamless transition to NFL riches was apparent.

But in his gut, and in his heart, Matt Holliday wasn't looking for instant Lotto. He didn't feel like Marino or Elway. He felt like a seed-spitting, cleats-clicking, glove-toting ballplayer. And in the end, after the Rockies selected him seventh in the 1998 amateur draft -- on his uncle's recommendation -- he signed with Colorado. The $780,000 bonus he received was a record amount at the time for a player taken so late in the draft.

Holliday packed his dusty baseball bag and reported to the Arizona Fall League, where he batted .342 in 32 games. The following spring, it was on to Asheville, N.C., then Salem, Va., then Zebulon, N.C., and so forth. In the end, Matt listened to everyone's advice, then followed his own instincts.

"It was tough, very tough, but I sort of wanted to go play pro ball," Holliday said. "I thought if it got to the point where my dad thought financially it was worth it, he would be OK with that. So when I got the opportunity, he was supportive. But it was tough. I had the opportunity to play for him, had the opportunity to play college ball with my brother. It wasn't easy, but it was what I wanted to do."

It would take six summers of long bus rides to tiny towns, fast food and cheap motels before Holliday made his major league debut. He went hitless against Matt Morris at old Busch Stadium on April 16, 2004. But in the final game of that three-game set, he went three for three. By the summer of 2007, his fourth season in Colorado, he topped the National League in hits (216), batting average (.340), doubles (50), runs batted in (137) and total bases (386). He led the Rockies to their first World Series. By then, the integrity of his decision was undeniable. His gut had been right.

"I think it's a decision he has never looked back on," said Josh Holliday, 33, who spent two seasons in the Toronto organization after his OSU career and now is an assistant coach at Vanderbilt. "A lot of people along the way used to ask him about football, but I don't think Matt ever felt it was realistic to make it as a baseball player when you are constantly looking over your shoulder doing something else. To his credit, he took the greater challenge.

"I think that's one of the great things -- Matt's ability to appreciate the majors comes from the time he spent in the minor leagues, and the fact that it didn't happen overnight, that it took parts of five or six seasons to master his craft enough to get a chance. ". . . His heart lies with baseball, and he chased his dream. Through some blessings and some talent and support, he's been able to realize that dream."

'A little bit crazy'

The dream has included twists and turns in the past year. As Holliday approached the final year of a contract, the Rockies couldn't negotiate an extension with Matt and agent Scott Boras. After 11 years with the organization, including five seasons in Colorado, the slugging outfielder was traded to Oakland last November. Pitchers Huston Street and Greg Smith and promising outfielder Carlos Gonzalez went to the Rockies.

The Oakland experience proved short-lived. Just as Holliday was settling in to his new team and his American League surroundings, the floundering Athletics shipped him and the remains of his $13.5 million contract to St. Louis in July for three minor leaguers, including power-hitting prospect Brett Wallace. The rapid movements have been disruptive for the Holliday household, which includes Matt's wife, Leslee, and two sons, Jackson, 5, and Ethan, 2.

Two years after emerging as the new face of a franchise that won an NL pennant, the 29-year-old Holliday, in the prime of his career, has worn three different uniforms in less than 12 months. Nonetheless, he has treated the roller coaster ride as a learning experience.

"Things happen for a reason," Holliday said. "I feel like I am where I am supposed to be. . . . It's been a little bit crazy, and it's probably been a little tougher on my wife as far as moving and the behind-the-scenes things. But I think both of us feel like our time in Oakland was good. We learned a lot about each other and other things, and now we're here. So we're just trying to take advantage of our opportunities to learn and grow."

Opportunities in the middle of the Cardinals' batting order have come often, and Holliday has fulfilled hopes he could balance a lopsided offense. In his initial 47 games as a Cardinal, Holliday had 47 RBI as the club sprinted to a double-digit lead in the NL Central. During those games, Holliday batted .371 with 28 extra-base hits, a .424 on-base percentage and a .674 slugging percentage. In those 47 games, the Cardinals were 33-14.

On several occasions -- most memorably with a ninth-inning home run off premier closer Trevor Hoffman -- the cleanup-hitting Holliday burned opposing pitchers for passing Albert Pujols ahead of him. For Holliday, serving as the protector rather than the protected is simply the natural order of things. He was doing the same thing when he was 15 years old, a freshman on a Stillwater High team that featured his All-State older brother batting third.

"There were several occasions when he was a ninth-grader and I was a senior on the varsity and people would walk me on purpose and pitch to him," remembered Josh Holliday. "And he'd rifle one off the fence and you could just see the look on his face. He liked that challenge of somebody pitching around me to pitch to him.

"Kind of like today. If they walk Pujols and pitch to him, he's going to make them pay. He's going to compete and do all he can to help his team. You saw that growing up. It's no different today, just a different environment, different uniform."

'A job to do'

In terms of publicity, Holliday has no problem riding shotgun on another player's wagon. A runner-up in the NL MVP voting of 2007 (won by Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins), Holliday is unsigned after this season and stands to benefit financially from making his own headlines. But he doesn't value the situation in St. Louis on those terms. He would be no more comfortable hitting ahead of Pujols than he is hitting behind him.

"I don't ever come from that point of view," he said. "I'm part of this team. I don't consider myself any bigger or any smaller than every guy in here. I have a job to do, and I feel I play for the right reasons. And I don't necessarily have a comfort level that is based on whether I am thought of as the face of the franchise or not."

In new surroundings, among new faces for the second time this season, Holliday has been respectful of the environment and conservative in demeanor. His body language is unaffected, his face often expressionless. Whether he rounds the bases with a dramatic home run or stands in the outfield awaiting the next pitch, Holliday appears composed in any circumstances.

Looks are deceiving. He is more animated in the confines of private settings and among familiar friends. You want to talk fantasy football, Matt Holliday is your man. Mention his son Jackson has a better swing than he does, his pride shows and his face glows. But he is a "less is more" type of personality. He never starves for attention or yearns for accolades. His actions and his thoughts are never for effect.

"I learned a lot as a young person to always sort of respect the people who are more listeners than talkers," he said. "That's just kind of who I am. Before I have an opinion about anything, I would rather know what I am talking about before I speak. I may be quiet in my demeanor, but I'm not quiet."

His sincerity has made Holliday a form-fitting addition to a Cardinals clubhouse that appreciates his hard work and selfless approach. "He's a soft-spoken guy, but he has some funny things to offer," shortstop Brendan Ryan said. "He's a good dude, and he's very knowledgeable about the game. I don't know if he's ever been the center of attention in social settings; I don't really think that's him. But I think he gets all the attention he deserves, and maybe wants, in that uniform."

Jones recalled things were not much different in Colorado, where Holliday had close ties and clubhouse tenure. "He doesn't show a lot of emotional expression," Jones said. "But when he's around the clubhouse, around his friends, he's in the middle of all the debates and discussions, and the getting-on-each-other stuff. But when he's out on the field, he's a leader. He's out there for a purpose, and you can tell it."

The dynamic duo

One of Holliday's purposes in the postseason will be to force the enemy to deal with Pujols, and make them pay otherwise. Cardinals hitting instructor Hal McRae suggested Holliday is the perfect storm in the cleanup spot. Who better to be a Pujols enforcer than a Pujols clone?

"He's a high-average hitter with tremendous power and a short stroke," McRae said. "He is similar to Pujols. They compare favorably to each other because they both have the ability to keep the bat in the strike zone and hit the ball out of the ballpark. Generally, hitters don't come in the same package that way."

How long the dynamic duo of Pujols and Holliday will continue to terrorize remains to be seen. In the present, St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak struck gold by acquiring Holliday, giving his team's postseason push a nitrous injection that left the division in the dust. But when the bats and balls are put away this winter, Holliday becomes a free agent and employs a representative who is notorious for seeking bank-breaking contracts.

The situation in St. Louis certainly fits into Holliday's Field of Dreams at this point. "I've found that playing on winning teams is the only way to play," Holliday said. "It just makes the game a whole lot more fun and more enjoyable. I feel like I become a better player, because there are lot more things I feel I can do that can help the team win, instead of playing on a team that is basically purely about numbers and self-gratification. I don't enjoy that atmosphere in baseball."

For his part, Holliday won't even consider discussing the future while his teammates are still in the present. "I sort of categorize it as I owe it to this team to concentrate on playing ball, and do what I can do to help this team get into the postseason and ultimately, hopefully, win a World Series.

"I think it would be awfully selfish of me to be thinking about anything else. There's plenty of time when the season is over to figure out what the future holds."

Perhaps some insight might be gleaned from another source. Josh Holliday still likes to watch his brother play. They have remained close through the years, as has the entire Holliday family. Josh recently drove up from the Vanderbilt campus in Nashville, Tenn., to catch a three-game series at Busch Stadium.

For a baseball coach from a baseball family, it was quite the experience. "It's really a classic baseball setting," Josh Holliday said. "The stadium and the fans . . . I could sit there and watch baseball all day every day."

"I think Matt's enjoyed it, really enjoyed the team and the manager, and all the people that make up the experience there. I know it's a great place to play, and he appreciates the fans and the environment surrounding the team. He's enjoying every minute of it.

"I think that's the greatest gift the Cardinals have given him, a chance to be part of a winning team, a chance to get back to the World Series."

Matt Holliday's gift to the Cardinals has been 2 1/2 months of exquisite baseball. St. Louis fans hope it's a gift that keeps on giving.

 

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