BANGOR, Maine — Even now, with 19 professional baseball seasons tucked securely under his uniform belt, the second most successful Canadian-born big leaguer still sees himself more as a hockey guy.
Matthew Wade Stairs has a 16-year major league baseball career to his credit, membership in an elite and exclusive group of big leaguers, and a World Series ring, but he still calls hockey his first love.
That’s not inconceivable, given he was born in Saint John, New Brunswick; grew up in Fredericton; now lives in Bangor; is an assistant coach for a local high school hockey team, and has a hockey-related knee injury to thank for his pro baseball career.
It certainly explains why — just six days before reporting to Toronto to start working out with Team Canada for the World Baseball Classic last month — Stairs was more interested in keeping up with his favorite team (Montreal Canadiens), catching highlights of his second-favorite team (Boston Bruins) and tuning into his NHL satellite TV package.
“I’ll watch the NHL channel a lot and get the highlights,” Stairs said. “After everything’s done I’ll definitely sit down in my office and watch two or three hockey games a night.”
He also likes to watch hockey before turning in for the night, but he has to be careful.
“Once my wife goes to bed, I have the remote, but I have to make sure the TV’s back to her station before I turn it off,” he said with a chuckle.
Guess being the second-leading native Canadian in big league games played (1,662) and home runs (254), the only Toronto Blue Jay to hit doubles in five consecutive at-bats, and — according to Stats LLC — one of only nine currently active major leaguers to hit 10 or more home runs for 13 straight seasons only gets you so far at the Stairs household on outer Essex Street in Bangor.
Bangor a refuge of privacy
As he had twice in the last three years, Stairs was toiling for a team with no chance at the playoffs until he was acquired by a contender last August.
Philadelphia Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. dealt a left-handed pitcher to Toronto for Stairs.
“He’s been on our radar screen for several years. We actually talked to his agent a few times over the years when he was a free agent,” Amaro said. “We wanted some power off the bench, and he could certainly add to that. We knew he’s a great makeup guy and a quality teammate, and that fit our program here.”
Stairs’ left-handed bat and blue-collar approach fit so well, he’s back with the team in spring training.
“He’s always been a positive influence on the field and in the clubhouse from the time we’ve gotten him,” said Amaro. “At this stage of the game, he’s a tremendous luxury for us in that he’s a quality person who played very effectively for us in limited playing time, and that’d be his role for us again in 2009.”
Even after delivering a pinch-hit, game-winning home run in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series last fall and being part of a World Series title, Stairs looked forward to another offseason in Maine away from the fanfare, cameras, microphones and constant travel.
“What’s so great about Bangor is it’s a very quiet city, very low-key and a great area to live,” Stairs said. “Our family has lived here eight years. Maybe it’s more from coaching hockey and knowing people in the community, but people know me, and the support from people here is unbelievable.”
Even being a World Series champ hasn’t really changed Stairs’ River City visibility.
“I don’t know it’s necessarily changed a lot,” he said. “It’s more like ‘Where’s the ring?’ and ‘Can I see it?’”
Stairs won’t get his ring until April 5 at a pre-game ceremony, but he already has a place in his house reserved for it.
“It’s going to go in a case with the league championship ring I won with Detroit,” he said. “I’ll definitely have a light on it so it’s blinging a little bit.”
Life in Bangor seems to suit the laid-back Stairs, wife of 19 years, Lisa, and children Nicole, Alicia and Chandler.
“I don’t take anything for granted and definitely don’t think I’m better than everyone. I try to treat everyone equal,” Stairs said. “Of course, if they don’t treat you equal or right, I can be a [jerk] as well, but I just try to be low-key.”
He and Lisa found their house online after initially planning to buy a house in Kansas City. They were familiar with Bangor since both grew up in New Brunswick and came to Bangor for vacations and family trips.
Yes, he gets noticed, but like fellow Bangor resident Stephen King, he’s generally left alone.
“I’m not much of a book reader, but I’ve seen some of his movies like ‘The Dead Zone,’” Stairs said. “I’ve never met the man, as bad as I’d like to go up to the house, knock on the door, say hi and introduce myself.”
But he doesn’t, because he knows how much he values his own privacy.
“I don’t like much of the media … Well, I mean, I don’t like being in the spotlight very much,” he said. “I don’t mind doing interviews and stuff. I just don’t like getting mobbed.”
Stairs recently allowed New England Sports Network to come up from Boston and do a feature on him and his offseason job: fourth-year assistant coach for the John Bapst Memorial High School varsity hockey team.
For the Crusaders, it was a bonus, not a distraction.
“NESN came up and came to a practice and a game and interviewed some kids,” said Bapst head coach Gene Fadrigon. “They got a kick out of it, and I ended up making a contact with a NESN guy that landed me two Bruins tickets.”
Teaching by example
Stairs, 41, seemed more disappointed by the end of his hockey season than that of his more heralded baseball one.
“It’s tough leaving hockey because we’ve had such a great year,” said the former forward, who helped coach Bapst to a 16-2 regular-season record and No. 1 seeding in the Eastern Class B tournament. “I’ve seen huge improvement in the players and how they approach the game.”
Stairs works with the offensive lines (forwards) and coaches power plays and penalty kills. He had to leave to join Team Canada before Bapst started postseason play.
Stairs, who donates his coach’s salary to the program to pay for new jerseys or equipment, says he has a great relationship with the players.
“He’s had a big impact with our team. The kids love him,” Fadrigon said. “He’s a great teacher, but he’s also great in terms of emotional and mental support and reinforcement.”
Ethan Sale, a senior forward, credits Stairs for helping his physical and mental game.
“He’s definitely a lead-by-example guy, and he’s helped me stay more level-headed,” said Sale, who has worked with Stairs the last three years. “I’ve always had kind of a temper, and he’s definitely taught me to keep cool. He’s also helped me with my shot. I’ve improved it tenfold because of him.”
Players respond to Stairs’ understated approach.
“It’s almost like coming and coaching us is his way of getting away from all the stress of baseball. We almost never talk about baseball with him,” Sale said. “I wouldn’t know he was a pro ballplayer the way he acts. The only thing that gives it away is his Hummer.
“He’s a cool guy. He doesn’t have an ego at all, and I think it’s beneficial because it teaches us a lot by example.”
Fadrigon can’t say enough about Stairs’ contributions.
“I could never give these kids what he’s given them,” Fadrigon said. “I’m an X’s and O’s guy who likes to prepare and teach and scout, but what he’s bringing to this team, I don’t know if anyone else around here could do that.
“He’s been there. He’s been where these kids are, and he’s been where they’d like to be. He hasn’t always been successful, but he’s worked hard and done whatever he needs to do to be successful.”
Now he’s a big-league hitter with 864 RBIs, a lifetime batting average of .266 and career earnings of more than $16 million over 19 years as a pro.
“Even with all that, he’s so approachable,” Fadrigon said. “He has this way about him that he doesn’t panic. He’s always on an even keel. Even his criticism is always very constructive and appreciated.”
Fadrigon even credits Stairs for establishing and maintaining a sense of team decorum and responsibility.
“In my tenure we haven’t had any discipline problems,” he said. “He doesn’t talk a lot, but when he speaks, they listen. He’s got a great sense of humor, and he’s so much fun to be around. If someone was going to coach my kids, I’d want Matt Stairs to coach them. He’s just a wonderful example.”
When Stairs isn’t coaching hockey, he’s playing — twice a week in two local adult leagues.
“Once you get away and put the skates on, it’s nothing but hockey. The only time I pick up a bat is when I sign one,” said Stairs, whose 1986 knee injury in a hockey game steered him to baseball. “My offseason conditioning program the last four years is skating, taking a lot of slap shots, skating and more slap shots. I get my cardio with that.”
As he prepares for this season, Stairs knows his remaining time in the game is limited, but just as he’s come to embrace his role as a utility player and pinch-hitter off the bench, he’s ready for life after playing.
“There’s doubt in my mind as to whether I play after this season,” Stairs said. “The big thing is how I feel physically and mentally. Right now I still have the drive, but it’s going to be tough to stick around.
“The day I retire I think I’ll take a year off and then go straight into coaching or managing,” he said. “Nothing would be better than getting back in the majors to manage.”
Nearly 20 years in the bigs … Not bad for an “average guy.”
“I remember when I played for Canada [in the 1987 world championships]. I was told I’d be a good Team Canada player and that’d be it,” Stairs recalled. “I was told I was too small [he’s 5 feet. 9 inches tall, 210 pounds], average guy, not the greatest outfielder.
“I guess all that work, all those years paid off.”