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Good Guy, Bad Luck

Matt Lawton finds his way in the weird new world of Indians baseball.


Welcome, Matt: An aching shoulder has contributed to - Lawton's up-and-down start in Cleveland. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Welcome, Matt: An aching shoulder has contributed to Lawton's up-and-down start in Cleveland.
Two seasons ago, when Matt Lawton played for the Minnesota Twins, professional wrestler Mick "Mankind" Foley presented him with a T-shirt. Lawton got a few knocks the first night he wore the shirt under his uniform, so he kept wearing it. Eventually, after repeated washings, the hits faded with the shirt's colors.

Baseball players are a superstitious lot, but it's fitting that a guy with Lawton's history and makeup would cherish routine and talismans. (He wears at least one piece of black clothing, and all his cars are black, as are his bats.) He's five foot nine, which is small for a corner outfielder. He doubted himself early in his career and thought of quitting. And just as he established himself as a productive major leaguer, a fastball fractured his right eye socket. He came back from the injury two months later, but the nightmares lasted through the off-season. "I was playing baseball since I was five," he says. "I was never afraid of the baseball. But after I got hit, I have to admit I was afraid to get into the box."

Curious fortune has continued to chase Lawton. In Minnesota, he was the best player on a bad team, only to be traded when the Twins finally competed. He arrived in Cleveland on a wave of cost cutting and character building. Enigmatic superstars were out, scrappy fundamentalists in. The refashioned Tribe would overachieve for a change, or so the thinking went.

But the Indians suddenly look a lot like the Kansas City Royals. Jacobs Field has been so quiet, beer vendors' voices carry into the press box, even when the windows are shut. And Lawton hasn't done much -- on or off the field -- to endear himself to a town waiting to wrap its arms around . . . someone. Rightly or not, he seems to symbolize the mediocrity of the new day.

Matthew Lawton III was born in Gulfport, Mississippi. "We lived in a community where there was nothing to do," he says. "That's all we did all day long was play baseball. We didn't have any distractions. The game continued to grow on me. I still love to play today."

Lawton often concludes his thoughts with clichés like "I still love to play." They're his parachutes. Though friendly and quick with a smile, he tends to drop out of a conversation just when it gets interesting. "He's pretty shy," says Cooper Ferris, Lawton's coach at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

But for a freak snowstorm, he might not have been drafted after his second year at community college. Twins scout Cal Ermer was headed for Alabama when a blizzard was forecast. He stayed in Meridian, Mississippi, and the next day, after the snow was pushed from the field, caught an MGCCC double-header. Lawton was small, Ermer says, but he had agility and strength. "He was a good athlete and a good person."

Ermer hesitated drafting Lawton because he didn't think he'd sign. Five times, Lawton's parents told Ermer their son was staying in school. Finally, Ermer's wife, Gloria, Miss Tennessee in 1952, asked to join him on a visit to the tiny Lawton home, which sat off a dirt road. "She knew the mother has a lot to say about it," Ermer says of his late wife. "I was ready to give up on it."

Gloria Ermer (and a $30,000 signing bonus) convinced the family that Matt should go pro, and the Twins took him in the 13th round. His early minor-league years were unhappy ones. The organization moved him from second base to the outfield and kept him in a rookie league for two years. Frustrated and homesick, he told his father, who hauled pulpwood for a living, that he wanted to pack his bags. His dad answered with words no son wants to hear: "I didn't raise a quitter."

"My dad's a tough man," Lawton says. "He's always been tough on me."

He made his major-league debut in 1995. The next year, he bounced between Minnesota and Triple A Salt Lake City. "I doubted myself for a long time. I didn't have that immediate success. I think it was my third year in the major leagues that I felt real comfortable, that I felt like the game was starting to come to me."

Indeed it did. In 1998, he was voted the Twins' MVP. The next year, he led the club in walks and steals, despite taking a pitch to the face. In 2000, he was an all-star. The day the team was announced, his father positioned himself in front of the TV at 7 a.m. and waited for the news. Lawton would also repay Dad in other ways. "He's really a class kid," Ferris says. "He took care of his parents. He built them a home before he built himself one."

Yet two unlikely things happened last year: Minnesota won games -- and traded Lawton. In return, the Twins got a competent starting pitcher in Rick Reed, but they gave up an anchor in the lineup and the locker room. After the trade, the Twins collapsed. Losing Lawton wasn't the only reason. "But if you ask anybody who was on the ballclub with him last year, he was missed a lot -- not only on the field, but in the clubhouse," according to retired pitcher and Twins TV analyst Bert Blyleven. "He was one of the leaders."

How much did Lawton mean to the Twins? "Shit, you saw our record in the second half," reliever LaTroy Hawkins says. "It's kind of hard to explain. He came up with us through the minor leagues. He was part of us getting our asses kicked all those years. We finally have some success, and they trade away one of our keystone players.

"Not to take anything away from Rick Reed, but Matt was a dear friend to us and a hell of a baseball player."

Minnesota was willing to part with Lawton because the brass didn't think he'd be worth the salary he'd command after 2002, his last season under contract. According to reports, management thought he sometimes loafed up the line on ground balls.

Indians GM Mark Shapiro, however, believed that Lawton was worth a lot. After acquiring him in the package for Robbie Alomar, Shapiro signed him to a four-year, $27 million contract. "We wanted to have players we believed in as both players and people, guys that were motivated by pride," Shapiro said early in the season. "Matt's indicative of that type of player, guys whose motivation is not the trappings of success, but pride in who they are and the way they play the game."

At the time, Shapiro looked like a genius. The Indians ran off to an 11-1 start. Since then, they have looked daintier than Olive Oyl. Lawton hasn't been the problem, but he hasn't been the solution, either. He's looked lost on the basepaths (caught stealing six times), and a separated shoulder has rendered his throwing arm a dishrag.

After the second of three team meetings called this year, Lawton was asked if Manager Charlie Manuel had said anything to him. "When you have meetings, you don't point fingers, but I'm sure he said a lot of things that was pertaining to me. As a player, you just sit here and take the abuse, kind of like being scolded as a kid." Enter Cliché Man: "You just come out and continue to work hard."

It sounds as though he's a little lost in Cleveland, which doesn't offer the riverboat gambling and bass fishing of his native Gulf Coast. Wife Cazesta kept their eight-year-old daughter and 20-month-old son in Mississippi until school let out. Asked what he did on a previous off-day, he said, "I just sat at my house and watched television."

Lawton is alternately humble and cocky. Before the first game of the season, ESPN wired him for sound during batting practice. Lawton had so little to say, he wandered over to Ellis Burks and Travis Fryman in the hopes they had some wisdom to share. As a Met, Lawton was thrilled to meet Padres hitting genius Tony Gwynn, whom he referred to as "Mr. Gwynn." Gushed Lawton: "I didn't think he'd know me, but he did."

"I played against a lot of guys who played with Matt," says Burks, "and I still hear a lot of guys talk about how good of a player and how good a person he is."

Adds Hawkins: "If I passed away, I'd want Lawton to take care of my kids. That's the kind of guy he is."

The other Lawton poses like Barry Bonds when he hits deep fly balls, even the ones that die harmlessly on the warning track. After a Cleveland-Minnesota game got nasty with beanballs and stare-downs, Lawton called his ex-mates "a bunch of trash talkers" and suggested they didn't want to fight.

His comments weren't quite as warlike as they appeared in The Plain Dealer; Lawton also said that he saw more spunk in the Twins than when he played in Minnesota. Still, Manuel chided Lawton for taunting an opponent, and Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire called him "Mr. Going Good," suggesting he runs his mouth when he's playing well and buttons up when he struggles.

Lawton must feel that he's missing out on the fun in Minnesota, having been traded from a low-budget Cinderella to a fading giant just as he turned 30. Little was demanded from Lawton in the Twin Cities. In Cleveland, he plays in the shadows left by Alomar and Juan Gonzalez. But if Lawton is feeling heartsick for his former team and burdened by the expectations of spoiled Tribe fans, he hides it well. "I don't read the papers. I don't listen to the radio stations. I just know my job is to go out there and play baseball and help this team win games."

God help team and Cliché Man alike.

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