WELCOME HOME, MATT!

BY NICK MURRAY

MURRAY.NICK@DAILYGLEANER.COM

Friday evening, Matt Stairs drove to the ballpark for a game night, just as he had for 19 years as a major-league baseball slugger. Only this time, his route to the park brought him along the street that bears his name, and to the park that wields the sign “home of 2008 World Series Champion Matt Stairs.” He was home.

Before a crowd estimated at 800 at Royals Field, Stairs suited up in the Royals’ blue and white as he had once upon a time years before and went 1-for-3 with a run batted in and a run scored in a 7-4 win for the Fredericton Peterbilt DQ Royals over the Saint John Alpines.

“Just knowing that at 16 I had a chance to play in this place and had the support back then, and then the turnout by the crowd tonight was unbelievable,” said Stairs on the long introduction that looked almost as far back as his tee-ball days. “Today was probably really the first time it kicked in about having a street named after you and coming back and what you’ve done.

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Swinging like a pro: Former major league baseball player Matt Stairs swings for the fence while at his first at bat at Royals Field Friday night. James West/The Daily Gleaner

“That’s the biggest thing is the emotions of what I’ve gone through in my career and then to come back 20-some years later is a great feeling. It was outstanding.”

Stairs came in the back way to Royals Field rather than up the hill on Morrison Street because that’s how he did it when he played here before.

“Until you have a street named after you, or you walk in and you see the big sign at the stadium, it just kind of kicks in all of a sudden,” said Stairs. “It’s very special and it’s a great honour. I know it’s been up there for a few years, but I never really got a chance to explain how it felt. But it’s a great feeling coming to the ballpark up Matt Stairs Way. It’s such an honour.”

The Royals sent Dan Murphy to the hill, but he got off to a rocky start in Stairs’ homecoming. After a pair of walks to Chris Denny and Peter Shaw, Yves Parent came in and cracked a first-pitch fastball just inside the right-field pole to score three.

Later in the top of the first, Geoff Beckwith sent a line drive into right field, then advanced on a wild pitch and two more walks. Murphy then walked Adam Clark on four straight pitches with the bases loaded, putting the Alpines up 4-0, but struck out Ron Barton looking on three straight pitches to finish a 36-pitch inning and his night. He left after one inning with what coach Mike Lint described as back tightness.

The Royals fought back with a two-out rally in the bottom of the first against Alpines pitcher Shaun O’Toole. After Dave Barr singled to left, Stairs came up in the cleanup spot, not to any musical tune, but to Joe Buck’s call of his 2008 NLCS homerun against the Los Angeles Dodgers — better known as “The Moonshot.” After taking two fastballs for strikes on the outside of the plate, he sat on a curveball and sent a hard grounder to second, where Denny missed it between his legs.

Mike Washburn then came up and sent a groundball to shortstop, and Clark threw it into the stands behind first, scoring Barr.

With two men on, Chris Sorensen sat on an outside fastball and launched it opposite field and over the right field wall for a three-run homer, tying it up 4-4.

Jake Waugh came in relief of Murphy in the top of the second and was lights-out through his four innings of work, striking out two and surrendering two hits.

The Royals opened a two-run lead after Barr scored Steve McCarty on a two-out hot shot to third, and beat the throw from Peter Shaw. Then came Stairs — Matt, not Corey — who turned on a hanging curveball with a 1-2 count and singled up the middle, scoring Jody Peterson.

Later in the bottom of the fourth with Saint John’s Ryan Arsenault on the mound, McCarty took a 3-2 offering and hit a solo shot to right field, putting Fredericton up 7-4.

After the top of the fifth, the umpires delayed the game due to lightning in the area and ultimately called the game because of rain. Because the game passed the 4½-inning mark, it was ruled official game and won’t be resumed.

Waugh picked up the win for the Royals while O’Toole was saddled with the loss. Barr went 2-for-3 with a run scored, and McCarty also went 2-for-3 with a double, a dinger, and an RBI.

Before the game, the Royals were at the field around 5 p.m. getting ready in a major league-style warm up – hitting, throwing, fielding groundballs and shagging flies. Head coach Mike Lint said the pre-game plan didn’t come from him or any of his coaching staff, and that the team has never done anything like that before.

“Not even close,” said Lint. “I think just having somebody around that (Stairs) has, I think it kind of makes everybody else step their game up a notch or two. That was a decision made by players this afternoon. I had a few of them send me texts saying (they were going early). It was great to see.”

Lint isn’t making it mandatory for his team but won’t say no if his players want to do it on a regular basis.

Aside from Stairs’ pedigree, Lint said there’s a lot he can learn from the World Series champ.

“It’s his knowledge of the game and the respect for the game that he has, the ability to teach and the willingness to teach the guys,” said Lint. “He’s been phenomenal to be around since day one.”

Meanwhile Stairs’ support coming into the game has been outstanding. From the local fans, to his Twitter followers back in Philadelphia, he said he sees all the tweets to him and would like to answer as many as he can.

“I’m a fan, and everyone who follows me on Twitter is a friend,” said Stairs. “I lost the love of playing major-league baseball, but I found it again playing senior baseball.”