Lehigh Valley IronPigs' Matt McBride: A Great Catch

Matt McBride’s long professional baseball career took root at Lehigh. His legacy has opened doors  for the players who follow in his footsteps.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Stephanie Veto

Videography by

Stephanie Veto

In the spring of 2001, Lehigh baseball coach Sean Leary took a routine high school recruiting trip to see a catching prospect. When he arrived, the high school coach approached him with a tip: Leary might want to also watch the sophomore who would relieve that catcher later in the game.

The starter impressed Leary. But once he saw the backup, his first thought was, This kid is going to move that prospect from catcher to third base.

The “kid” was Matt McBride, who would later choose to play his college ball at Lehigh—and then, after a stellar career with the Mountain Hawks, go on to become the most highly drafted major league player in Patriot League history. 

He became an All-American at Lehigh, won the 2006 Triple Crown in the Patriot League (leading the league in batting average, homers and RBIs), was a three-time All-Patriot League selection and the 2006 Patriot League Player of the Year, and tied for the most career doubles in league history. 

He went on to be the first catcher selected in the 2006 MLB Draft, a second-round pick by the Cleveland Indians. Since then, McBride has had major league stints with the Colorado Rockies and Oakland Athletics, minor league stops in a slew of cities, including Nashville, Tenn.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Kingston, N.C.; and Akron, Ohio; and winter league appearances in Hawaii and the Dominican Republic.

Lehigh Valley IronPigs player and Lehigh alum Matt McBride

Lehigh alum Matt McBride, the most highly drafted major league player in Patriot League history, is in his second season with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Now, in his 14th season of professional baseball, and second with the Philadelphia Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate Lehigh Valley IronPigs, McBride is back where his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player seriously took root.

“You definitely have your ups and downs in baseball,” McBride, the first Lehigh product in 28 years to play in the majors, says. “It can be a little bit stressful, but to be able to do it for this long, I’m extremely lucky.”

In between IronPigs games, he works out with current Lehigh baseball players on the Goodman Campus and helps them along the way with their skills and approach, while, he says, possibly even learning something himself.

McBride’s impact at Lehigh is felt even when he’s not physically on campus. His success has helped put Lehigh baseball on the map, Leary says, guaranteeing that professional scouts never overlook anyone in brown and white again.

“What it’s done for us now is, there is a little bit more history, a little bit more tradition, with [players getting drafted], and we actually see within our program now probably six or eight kids we think will get drafted over the next four years, and it all started with Matt,” Leary says.

AN ENDURING BOND

On the last Sunday in January, less than a week prior to departing for spring training with the Phillies, McBride was inside Cundey Varsity House at Goodman as Lehigh baseball players returned from an outside run. Players excitedly greeted McBride, who knows each one by name.

“When I come back, it’s always nice to see how [everyone at Lehigh is] doing and they’re interested in seeing how I’m doing,” McBride says. “I think those relationships are what really matter to me and to everyone else at Lehigh.”

Matt McBride and his father George after a workout at Lehigh

Matt McBride, with his father George, often stops by Lehigh to chat with coach Sean Leary, train or workout with the baseball team.

Many of McBride’s off-seasons still begin with a conversation in Leary’s office, and include workouts with the Lehigh baseball team. He encourages players to give him a call when they’re working out in the winter. During the season, McBride tries to pop in when his schedule permits, catching an early weekend game or dropping by to take in a practice.

“For him, it’s kind of a comfort place,” Leary says.

It’s clear walking into Leary’s Taylor Gymnasium office how large McBride looms when it comes to Lehigh baseball. Leary’s desk, and the walls that surround it, are smattered with typical office décor: a collage of family photos hanging on the wall facing his diploma and family photos on his desk next to accolades, like the 2006 Patriot League trophy that McBride helped win. But as Leary sits facing visitors, hovering over his left shoulder is one of the larger pieces of art in the office—a photo of McBride catching at Lehigh in 2006.

“When you’re telling a story about a kid, it doesn’t hurt when he’s over your left shoulder,” Leary says.

The focus in recruiting at Lehigh, Leary says, still starts with the academics. But thanks in large part to McBride, there’s a real baseball reason to play here, too. Leary’s pitch? If you’re talented and work hard, the scouts are going to find you.

That’s how it worked for McBride, after all. His arm wasn’t the strongest, but his pop times—the time between a pitch touching the catcher’s glove and reaching the fielder at second base—were impressive. As far as hitting, Leary says McBride just outworked everyone.

“He spent every minute he could in the cage,” Leary says. “By the time he got to maybe sophomore year into junior year here at Lehigh, the scouts had one major question—could he be a long-term catcher at 6-foot-4?”

After playing in the New England Collegiate Baseball League after his freshman season, scouts wanted McBride to accept an invitation to spend the summer of 2005 in the collegiate Cape Cod Baseball League, an impressive accomplishment for a sophomore. McBride, who likes to fish, asked Leary if the scouts would be disappointed if he chose the Alaska Baseball League instead.

Alaska got McBride out of his comfort zone, which Leary says he needed.

“He came home with a different sense of confidence,” Leary says.

By the end of that fall, scouts were swarming, and it was clear McBride would be drafted. It was just a matter of how high.

MCBRIDE’S LEGACY 

Eight players have turned pro in Leary’s 24 seasons at Lehigh, and their photos are displayed in a hallway in the baseball locker room. Quite a few photos have been added in the last five years.

“I think a couple may have been missed [by scouts] before Matt was here because we still hadn’t earned that sort of respect across the scouting world,” Leary says. “Now we’re in a position where it’s a no-brainer.”

Matt McBride in the on-deck circle at an IronPigs game

Matt McBride warms up in the on-deck circle at Coca-Cola Park in Allentown on the night the Lehigh Valley IronPigs gave out bobblehead dolls of the Lehigh alum.

Leary estimates 27 scouts representing 23 different MLB teams were present at their last scout day in fall 2018. But as important as McBride is to Lehigh, the university and the coach are just as important to McBride.

Over time, McBride’s questions for Leary have subsided as Leary’s questions for McBride have increased. By nature, McBride doesn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, so Leary says he has to prompt him for feedback on Lehigh players whenever he’s around. “Quite frankly at this point, he knows more about hitting than I’ll ever know, and he’s done it at a higher level,” Leary says. 

From time to time, McBride still leans on Leary for advice.

It’s also Leary who was among those pushing McBride to finish his Lehigh degree. When McBride was drafted in 2006, he was 26 credits shy of graduating. With fall ball and instructional leagues running through November, and spring training starting in February, there wasn’t much of a window to take classes. Neck surgery prematurely ended his 2013 season with the Colorado Spring Sky Sox, the Rockies’ Triple-A affiliate at the time, allowing him to get in a full semester.

Noticing he didn’t look like a typical freshman, one professor asked McBride about his situation. “He was like, ‘I’m a student. I’m a full-time student now,’” Leary says. “And [our players], they’re like, ‘No, you play for the Rockies. Tell him you play for the Rockies.’ He just wouldn’t bring it up. … Every time he goes somewhere, he just wants to be Matt McBride, not the professional baseball player.”

McBride finished his political science degree from Lehigh in January 2018.

‘WE LOVE YOU, MATT!’

Initially, McBride was indecisive about his college choice, even after a meeting with his parents, Leary and a Lehigh admissions counselor. 

Knowing the player was on the fence, Leary penned a handwritten letter that listed the “Top 10” reasons McBride should choose Lehigh. 

Some of the reasons included academic opportunities at Lehigh and job placement numbers. The more lighthearted suggested McBride would look good in brown, or keep Leary from prematurely graying. And, of course, one reminded the Bethlehem native that playing at Lehigh would mean his friends would be able to see him play. 

McBride still mentions the letter, which made more of an impact than Leary could have imagined. The day McBride was drafted, family, friends, teammates and coaches gathered at his house. On the dining room table old photos and jerseys were displayed along with his Lehigh championship ring. In the center, under a glass plate, was Leary’s letter.

As McBride’s pro baseball career inches closer to the end than the beginning, his baseball life has come full circle. Just as his family was able to watch him play in college, they’re able to regularly attend IronPigs games now.

Matt’s father George always followed his son when he could. One day in 2012, he drove to Iowa to catch one of McBride’s minor league games with the Sky Sox only to find out he wasn’t playing.

“They scratched him from the lineup,” George says. “I was calling Catherine, his fiance at the time [now wife], and his mom. ‘Why the scratch?’ After the game he comes walking out, he had a big smile on his face. I figured, what the heck? He goes, ‘Hey dad, I got the call up.’ You’d think it’d be a thrill. We just stood there looking at each other.”

The next morning, George dropped his son off at the airport and drove 11 more hours, arriving in Denver with minutes to spare before McBride’s major league debut with the Rockies.

In 2014, in his second game after one of his major league call-ups, Matt McBride hit a go-ahead grand slam for the Colorado Rockies.

With 70 IronPigs home games each season, George takes his attendance at his son’s games even more seriously: The day after missing a home game due to work in 2018, George abruptly retired from his employer of 40 years, the New Jersey Water Supply Authority. There will be no more work-game conflicts, which means George will get to witness every great moment left in his son’s baseball career.  

There have already been more than a few. Despite his modest demeanor off the field, McBride has shown a flair for the dramatic on it. He hit a go-ahead grand slam in his second game after a major league call-up to the Rockies in 2014 and had two homers, one a grand slam, in his first home game with the IronPigs. This year, McBride went on a tear over his 34th birthday recording a six-game hitting streak in which he batted .478, smacked five homers—one a grand slam—and racked up 15 RBIs.

Another big moment came April 30, when the IronPigs’ promotional giveaway was a McBride bobblehead doll. George was there. So too were McBride’s mom Linda, wife Catherine ’08G and lead teacher at Lehigh’s Centennial School, 1-year-old daughter Magnolia, Leary, the Lehigh baseball team and his high school, Little League and American Legion coaches. Those who stayed until the game’s final inning witnessed a surprise. With the IronPigs facing an insurmountable lead, manager Gary Jones opted to save his pitchers for another day. Taking their place on the mound was McBride, a career catcher, first baseman and outfielder who hadn’t pitched since high school. 

McBride struck out a batter and didn’t allow a single earned run. With his father documenting it all on his phone, McBride jogged off the mound toward the dugout with a smile on his face.

“We love you, Matt!” a fan yelled from behind the dugout.

“It’s the best day of my life,” George said, holding his son’s bobblehead doll.

For McBride, every day is appreciated.

“It really goes by in a blink of an eye, but it’s definitely something you can’t take for granted, because every year, at least for me, could be your last—injuries, performance-wise,” McBride says. “Sports in general, especially baseball, there’s a limited window, so really try to enjoy it while you can.”

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Stephanie Veto

Videography by

Stephanie Veto

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