Journeyman Matt Stairs has crafted an extraordinary career

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 11:35 PM

VIERA, FLA. - The Bangor High School ice hockey team plays its next game in the Maine Class A state tournament on Tuesday. One of its assistant coaches will not be there. He vanished last week, like he always does at this time of year. "I got a job to do," Matt Stairs said.

And so Stairs traded 90 minutes a day at an ice rink for sun-splashed baseball diamonds and the 22nd spring training of his career, his first with the Washington Nationals. Stairs has volunteered for the past six winters as an assistant hockey coach in Bangor, his offseason home. He stands 5 feet 9 inches. He wears a scraggly goatee. He is bald.

Stairs is a common man who possesses an uncommon skill. Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth, Stairs's Phillies teammate, called him, alternatively, "one of the best left-handed pinch hitters of all-time" and "one of the coolest guys you'll ever meet."

In the winter, Stairs coaches teenagers and plays in two men's hockey leagues. In the summer, he waits in major league dugouts until the manager summons his break-glass-in-case-of-emergency bat, at which point he walks to the plate cold and tries to hit a home run. That's a hard thing, and maybe no one has ever done it as well as Stairs.

On Wednesday night, a Nationals official was sifting through franchise archives. He stumbled across a Montreal Expos contract for $11,000, signed on March 5, 1992 by Matthew Wade Stairs of Stanley, New Brunswick, Canada. Since the blue ink dried, Stairs has played for 12 teams, a record for position players, and hit a record 23 pinch-hit home runs.

"Did I ever expect it?" Stairs asked. "No. When I signed the professional contract, I figured it would be awesome to get to Double-A."

Instead, Stairs has crafted an utterly singular career. Twelve franchises have found him expendable, and some other team wanted him 12 times. Stairs turns 43 Sunday; White Sox utility infield Omar Vizquel is the only position player in baseball older than him.

Stairs endures because he found the one thing he can do better than anyone and embraced it. No active player has more hits (99), walks (57), plate appearances (444) or a higher slugging percentage (.509) as a pinch hitter than Stairs. Last season, with the San Diego Padres, Stairs appeared 61 times as a pinch hitter, 17 as anything else.

"My job is to pinch-hit, and I want to pinch-hit," Stairs said. "I don't want to play the outfield. I think it's really important to have a guy on the team that knows his role and doesn't complain about it. If you give me a start once every two weeks, fine. But I'd rather pinch-hit every game."

During games, Stairs watches from the dugout and thinks about hitting. He's had bench teammates who spend games swinging 300 times in a batting cage and studying film. Stairs does neither. By now, Stairs knows opposing relievers well and his own swing even better.

"I don't have very many bullets left," Stairs said. "So I don't want to waste them."

He prefers sharing his accumulated wisdom. Already this spring, hitting coach Rick Eckstein said, Stairs has offered tips to Nyjer Morgan on facing left-handed pitching. "He's a beautiful teacher," Morgan said.

When Werth scuffled at the plate in 2009, he watched Stairs hit and decided he should lower the position of his hands. As Werth made the change, he sought guidance from Stairs. Every day, for a large chunk of the season, Werth studied Stairs and discussed hitting philosophies with him. After the switch, Werth hit 28 of his career-best 36 home runs between June 13 and the end of the regular season. His career had changed, and Werth largely credited Stairs.

"I owe him something," Werth said. "That's for sure."

In Game 4 of the 2008 National League Championship Series, Stairs walked to the plate with two outs in the eighth inning, the Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers tied at 5. Stairs had taken two at-bats the entire postseason. The Dodgers sent in Jonathan Broxton, a flamethrower who had not allowed a home run at Dodger Stadium in more than two years. The Phillies needed runs to support their mess of a bullpen.

"We were beat," Werth said. "We were beat up. We had nothing."

Stairs looked at four pitches, three balls and a strike, before Broxton fed him a 94-mph fastball down the middle. Stairs unleashed his quick, violent swing. The ball landed 25 rows deep in right field. Teammates pumped fists and high-fived. The Phillies won that night, and they kept winning until they were world champs.

"That home run rejuvenated that club," Werth said. "It propelled us on to winning the World Series. That one homer, if that doesn't happen, I don't know if we would have had enough left in the tank."

When Stairs remembers the most famous at-bat of his career, one thing stands out. He has been told how the park erupted when Broxton thundered from the bullpen.

He remembers silence. "I didn't hear it," Stairs said.

"My thought process with pinch-hitting is, if I get a hit, it's a bonus. Because nobody expects you to do anything."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company