Claremore Zebras catcher Matt Whatley goes to practice each and every day finessing his skills in hopes of someday getting that golden opportunity of playing Major League Baseball.
On Monday, Whatley listened to former Texas Rangers catcher Jim Sundberg share his testimony on his journey from Illinois to the big-leagues at the annual Field of Dreams Banquet.
Sundberg, like Whatley, shares a love for baseball that is second to none.
“The toughest thing I’ve ever had to do was play baseball,” Sundberg said to a crowd of more than 100 baseball enthusiasts and proud supporters of Claremore, Rogers State University and American Legion fans.
As a major league catcher for 16 years, Sundberg caught 11 Hall of Fame pitchers — including Nolan Ryan, Rollie Fingers, Ferguson Jenkins and Greg Maddux.
Each one brought something different to the plate, said Sundberg.
“Nolan (Ryan) had the best fastball, while Ferguson (Jenkins) and Greg (Maddux) had the best control,” Sundberg added. “And, then there was Gaylord Perry, who caught you off-guard sometimes with his spitter.”
Gaylord Perry, according to Sundberg, was the toughest competitor he’s ever played with.
Sundberg’s storied career started in 1974 when he debut with the Texas Rangers. Over the course of his time with the Rangers, Milwaukee Brewers, Kansas City Royals and the Chicago Cubs, he established himself as one of the top defensive catchers in the American League with six consecutive Gold Glove Awards from 1976-1981.
“Defense and pitching are what it takes to win World Series championships,” Sundberg said. “We had that in Kansas City when the Royals beat the St. Louis Cardinals in 1985.”
Sundberg, who played in 1,962 games, played more games (1,521) as a catcher than any other player in Rangers history. His 1976 Gold Glove was the first by an Rangers player.
“The average player plays 4 years in the majors,” Sundberg said. “God has to give you a body to be able to play 162 games a year.”
Staying healthy, according to Sundberg, is key to having an extended career.
“If you don’t learn how to make adjustments and keep healthy, you’ll be out of the game,” Sundberg added.
Sundberg noted that he averaged approximately 130 games during his career.
“You look at Nolan Ryan and there’s a guy that played 27 years before hanging it up,” Sundberg said. “That’s phenomenal because Nolan did it right and took care of his body.”
Sundberg spent a great portion of his career catching the ‘flame-throwing’ Ryan and even witnessed the bench-clearing brawl with Chicago White Sox third baseman Robin Ventura in 1993.
“That was a case of what happens when Oklahoma meets Texas,” Sundberg said with a laugh. “When I played, we threw at each other all the time.
“Nolan (Ryan) didn’t like to be bunted on. On that night, the younger generation said no longer mess with throwing inside.”
Sundberg added that if a guy hit a home run, the next guy coming up was going to get knocked down.
In his career, Sundberg caught 130 shutouts and had a .993 fielding average. He also completed 145 double plays, and held the best ratio of double plays to errors of any catcher in major league history behind the plate for at least 1,000 games.
When asked what his pop time from the plate to second base was, Sundberg said it was 1.68 seconds.
“The average MLB catcher’s pop time is 2.0,” Sundberg added.
Not necessarily a threat at the plate on the offensive end, Sundberg had a career .248 batting average with 95 home runs, 624 RBIs and an on-base percentage of .327.
Sundberg said that the key to his career was working hard, pursuing passion and making the game fun.
“If you come to the park with an attitude of doing things right, competing at the highest level and chasing dreams, you’ll have success,” Sundberg said.
At the time of his retirement in 1989, Sundberg had caught more major league games than any man in history except for Bob Boone. He still ranks fifth to this day with that unprecedented milestone.
Now that Sundberg is retired from playing, he still stays actively involved in the Texas Rangers organization as the Senior Executive Vice President of Public Relations.
“Getting to work alongside Nolan and seeing his passion toward Texas Rangers baseball is fun to watch,” Sundberg said.
“He preaches to enjoy the game and keep it fun.”
And, that’s what drives players like Claremore’s Whatley to chase those ‘major league’ dreams.