Former pitcher Matt Clement has always wanted to coach basketball at his alma mater
June 28, 2009 8:00 AM
Matt Clement: "All the money I was fortunate enough to make and any fame that came with playing, I've never made a big deal about it. Maybe that's why this coaching isn't all that unusual to me. It's something I've always wanted to do."
By Mike White Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Matt Clement apologized to a visitor at his home in Butler.
"I don't mean to rush, but we have to get to this movie," Mr. Clement said.
Wednesday was opening night for "Transformers 2," and Mr. Clement's three young sons are big fans of the shape-shifting robots.
But this transformation stuff should be nothing new to the Clement boys. In a few months, their father transformed himself from Major League Baseball pitcher to high school varsity boys' basketball coach, from a professional making $9 million a year to a hometown coach who will earn $6,410 a year.
Mr. Clement retired in April as a major-league pitcher. He spent nine seasons with four teams, made the All-Star Game with the Boston Red Sox four years ago and pitched in a few playoff games during his career.
On Monday night, Mr. Clement was hired as the varsity boys' basketball coach at Butler Area High School.
As sequels go, this is Dream Job II for Mr. Clement. He said coaching basketball at Butler has been one of his goals for years. Seriously.
Even during the pinnacle of his baseball career, when he was among the league leaders in strikeouts, he used to talk about coaching basketball, preferably at Butler, his alma mater. He excelled in basketball at Butler, and he still calls the sport his "first love."
"My dream job was pitching in the major leagues," said Mr. Clement, whose retirement was hastened by surgery on his right shoulder two years ago. "As a young kid growing up, I wanted to be a professional athlete. But all the money I was fortunate enough to make and any fame that came with playing, I've never made a big deal about it. Maybe that's why this coaching isn't all that unusual to me. It's something I've always wanted to do."
Butler hired Mr. Clement even though his coaching experience was limited to only a few years of youth basketball.
"It's nice when you hire a head coach who has head coaching experience [on the varsity level], but I think sometimes you have to look beyond experience to see what someone might bring to a job," said Jerry Slamecka, assistant superintendent of Butler Area School District and a member of a selection committee that recommended Mr. Clement to the school board. The board approved Mr. Clement 9-0.
"I think Matt is one of the few people who experienced success in sports at the highest level and hasn't left his community," Mr. Slamecka said. "I think that was a major factor in the district hiring him."
Mr. Clement's hiring is yet another chapter in the story of a 34-year-old man who has always seemed so grounded and true to his roots that he doesn't seem real in today's world of spoiled athletes.
He used to make four times his $6,410 coaching salary in a day with the Red Sox.
But this is a guy who spent baseball offseasons living in Butler, whose spacious new home is surrounded by cornfields because he allows a local farmer to grow corn on his property.
This is a guy who married his high school sweetheart, Heather, baker of an awesome beer bread. But she uses root beer in the ingredients because the Clements don't drink.
This is a guy who used to say his favorite way to celebrate a big pitching victory was to go home, have dinner with his wife and play with his sons. Mattix Clement is 6, Madden, 4, and Mavrik, 20 months. After Mr. Clement was hired Monday night, he apologized for missing a reporter's call.
"I hadn't seen my boys pretty much all day and we had to have a kids vs. adults baseball game when I came home," he said.
He always credited his high school basketball coach, Mark Jula, as one of the main influences in teaching him the discipline and attitude needed to be successful in sports. Mr. Jula is now the boys' basketball coach at Center, but, coincidentally, was one of the finalists for the Butler job.
Maybe Mr. Clement's humbleness also has something to do with his upbringing.
His parents, Paul and Lois Clement, still live in the Butler Township ranch house where they raised Matt and his sister.
While his son made millions of dollars pitching, Paul Clement was proud to continue working in the sporting goods department at a Butler Kmart.
He worked there for more than three decades before retiring a few years ago, and now umpires teen baseball. Lois Clement worked for years for Butler County before retiring.
"I've stayed in Butler for a reason," Matt Clement said. "No. 1, my family is here. No. 2, I loved the cities I played in, but I didn't like the hustle and bustle.
"I think I've stayed grounded because as a Christian man, my faith is a tremendous part of my life. It is something that has kept me from going off track. You can open up the Bible and read 3,000 reasons why you should stay grounded."
Discovered by accident
Matt Clement was never a star in high school. He didn't become a starter in basketball until his senior year.
Major league baseball scouts discovered him by accident.
On April 20, 1993, a few scouts were on hand to look at Franklin Regional shortstop Kirk Taylor as his team played Butler. But Butler coach Ron Zawrotuk wanted to save his top pitchers, so he asked Mr. Clement -- his team's starting third baseman -- to take the mound.
Mr. Clement started throwing fastballs significantly faster than 90 mph. The scouts' jaws dropped.
Although Mr. Clement pitched only 18 innings his senior season, the San Diego Padres selected him in the third round of the draft, and he signed with the team a few months later.
Mr. Clement was 13-6 with the Red Sox in 2005, but he had major reconstructive surgery in September 2006 for a torn labrum, a torn rotator cuff and a torn shoulder capsule. He sat out the 2007 season before becoming a free agent. He pitched 262/3 innings in the St. Louis Cardinals' minor-league system in 2008 before being released.
"They say it takes two full years to fully come back from the shoulder surgery I had, so I wanted to give it one more try," Mr. Clement said.
He signed with the Toronto Blue Jays and headed to spring training in February. He enjoyed modest success, but the Blue Jays designated him for assignment near the end of March. That's when Mr. Clement retired.
"I always said I wouldn't hang around if I couldn't do it any more," Mr. Clement said. "Actually, my arm felt normal. I had no pain. But the velocity wasn't there. I knew I didn't have what it took to get big-league hitters out any more."
Many in Butler's community are happy to see Mr. Clement become the basketball coach.
"It's kind of nice to see someone come back to where they were from and give something back," said Walter Mowry, a cook at the Burger Hut restaurant, a stone's throw from Butler High.
"The guy could've moved out west or somewhere else like a lot of other athletes. But he came back here."
Tracy Sharpe, a former Butler resident who now lives in Las Vegas, was back this week eating at Burger Hut.
"I got together with some of my old Butler High School classmates the other night and Matt Clement was one of the big topics," she said. "We all think it's tremendous that he's going to coach. He's truly giving back something to his community."
The basketball job became available when the school board did not renew Joe Lewandowski's contract after seven seasons. Mr. Clement went through two interviews before being hired.
Although his coaching experience is limited, Mr. Clement was the starting point guard on Butler's team that made it to the WPIAL Class AAAA championship game in 1993.
Lafayette, Bucknell, Duquesne, Robert Morris and even Pitt were recruiting him. He had some Division I scholarship offers, but turned them down to sign with the Padres.
During his professional baseball days, Mr. Clement regularly attended Butler basketball games in the offseason. He often talked with high school basketball coaches about strategy. He studied the game on TV.
"I knew if this opportunity to coach here ever came about, I knew I had to have more in the bank than 'I like basketball,' " Mr. Clement said. "I have pages and pages of notes about offenses, and I know how I want a program to be run."
Mr. Clement already has watched tapes of eight Butler games last year, just to learn more about his players.
"I have a lot of goals, but I think yearly, your ultimate goal has to be to win," Mr. Clement said. "The section, the WPIAL, the state championship. Those should be your goals. I want to create a basketball program here that people are excited about.
"Baseball afforded me to have a different life at age 34 than most people have. It gave me a chance to do this basketball. I knew when I was done with baseball, I would always do something with kids in this community, even if it was just giving baseball lessons to Little League kids the rest of my life.
"I've never taken for granted how lucky I was to play professional baseball as long as I did. Now, hopefully I can lead these kids and teach them how to win, but also teach them how to be successful with hard work and dedication, and to do things with a conscience, too."