BREWER, Maine — Matt Stairs drives his black Ford Raptor into the parking lot of the Penobscot Ice Arena.
The 43-year-old Fredericton, New Brunswick, native gets out of the rugged truck and grabs his duffel bag and hockey stick before entering the rink. Wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a backward baseball cap, he’s casual as can be and appears to be enjoying retirement.
Just over a month ago, Stairs socked a game-winning single to lift the Washington Nationals to a victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was one of his lethal lefthanded swings, the one that allowed him to play major league baseball for 19 years. The one that produced 265 career home runs and 899 runs batted in and 23 pinch-hit home runs, an MLB record.
But stats won’t be kept on this night. There are no referees and no one cares about the score.
Stairs is playing pickup hockey in a rustic rink with bleachers made of lumber. The temperature feels like November in the old-school arena in Brewer, but there’s nowhere Stairs would rather be.
There’s companionship and camaraderie among the group as many have skated together for the past few years. It’s controlled competitiveness and the trash talk is all in good fun.
“We talk a lot of smack,” said Stairs, who lives in nearby Bangor. “This is a league where I don’t try to score. I try to set other people up. It’s more fun to watching people score goals and watching their reaction. This is just for exercise.’’
But sometimes Stairs can’t resist breaking into open ice for a scoring chance. He was a star forward for Fredericton High School and played on the inaugural Team Atlantic under-17 team, an all-star squad that featured future NHLers Everett Sanipass and Cam Russell.
After spending most of the pickup game passing the puck, Stairs gets a breakaway and buries the biscuit with a quick wrist shot. If he didn’t play baseball, he would have pursued hockey.
Stairs’ passion for the sport is being put to good use as a coach at Bangor High School. It’s a way to give something back to the city that’s his home away from home.
“It’s fun,’’ said Stairs, who’s also coached at John Bapst Memorial High School. “When I was playing baseball, it made the off-season go by so fast. Now that I don’t have an off-season, I’m looking forward to going to the rink, coaching the high school games and maybe making all the playoff games.’’
Stairs’ retirement isn’t just news in New Brunswick. A story in Thursday’s edition of the Bangor Daily News read, ‘Bangor’s Stairs to retire.’ That’s what happens when the locals like you enough to claim you as one of their own.
“They have taken to me well here,’’ Stairs said. “I think it’s because I’ve put back into the community with coaching hockey and doing softball clinics, and having fun here and just being an everyday guy.’’
Stairs hopes to add another chapter to his coaching career in the near future. Don’t be surprised to see him in the dugout, either calling the shots as a manager or serving as a hitting coach.
Stairs gained valuable experience as a manager several years ago in Mexican winter ball. And it’s not like he wouldn’t return to the minor leagues.
He knows there would be long bus rides and small ballparks, reminders of how far removed he’d be from the bigs. But the way Stairs sees it, that’s all part of the journey.
“I’m tired of flying,’’ he said. “I’ve had some crazy flights in bad weather. I don’t enjoy flying anymore. Hell, I drove from San Diego to home (after last season) because I was so tired of flying.’’
When word got out that Stairs would likely retire after Washington released him, he received calls from several major league organizations, each inquiring about coaching possibilities. Back in 2008, the year Stairs won a World Series with Philadelphia, former Toronto Blue Jays teammates Vernon Wells and Gregg Zaun both said Stairs would make a great coach because of his ability to relate to players.
Stairs paid his dues in the minors long before becoming a major-league regular with Oakland in 1997. He also understands what it means to be a role player as evidenced by the way he excelled as a pinch-hitter.
“When you’ve been around the game for so long and guys come to you with questions and you help them succeed, it’s a great feeling,’’ Stairs said. “Do I think I could manage right away in the big leagues? Yes, but I would need a very good bench coach to help me out. I’m retired from baseball as a player, but I’m not retired as a coach. That’s something I really want to do.’’
Another post-retirement project could involve television. Stairs was recently contacted by the Major League Baseball Network and he’s open to staying involved with the game in that capacity.
On this night, though, the pickup game reminds him that he’s retired – even if it’s only temporary. While Stairs discusses future possibilities, his puck pals pass by him, each smiling and saying hello. Laughter erupts from the dressing room when Stairs is presented with a walker for seniors as a retirement gift.
His teammates include a police officer, a geologist, a family physician and a young woman who’s a membership manager for the Girl Guides of Maine. There’s also Jon Davis, a security manager at a local casino who’s watched Stairs play in Boston, Toronto and San Diego.
“He’s one of the guys first, then he’s a baseball player,’’ Davis said. “He’s very well liked around here because he’s a regular guy. There’s nothing about him that’s fancy or anything like that. We supported him when he played ball and now we’re going to be on him about being retired. We’re going to teach him stuff like mowing the lawn.’’
Members of the opposing team also know Stairs. A broad range of professions are represented – a lawyer, a university professor, a retired newspaper editor and retired fashion photographer James Daigle, who came to Brewer after years in big cities.
“He treats everybody wonderfully and you can’t ask for more than that,’’ Daigle said of Stairs. “I worked with Donald Trump. I know what snobs can be like.’’
Daigle admits it means something to stop a skilled player like Stairs, even in a pickup game. Problem is, Stairs usually finds a way to redeem himself.
“When you have a guy like that playing, it’s fun,’’ Daigle said. “He’s very down to earth and not what you’d expect of a pro baseball player. Everybody laughs out here. We have nicknames that can’t be released to the public.’’
Stairs and his family – which includes wife Lisa and daughters Nicole, 20, Alicia, 18, and Chandler, 14, – will likely remain in Bangor for a few more years. Stairs talks about returning to Fredericton after Chandler graduates from high school.
But he’ll remain part of the Capital City’s sports scene, helping organize tournaments and working with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Stairs and his family own six dogs and three cats).
The former slugger is reveling in retirement. He’s received a flood of calls and texts lately, even more than he did after his pivotal pinch-hit home run in the 2008 World Series.
“The following I’ve had from the fans, especially in Fredericton, is unbelievable,’’ Stairs said. “I’ll pay it back. I’ll go back and do a lot of autograph sessions.’’