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After long journey, Tupman has come full circle

Matt Tupman on Thursday afternoon, July 25, 2013, at the Concord Sports Center where he is a hitting instructor.

(JOHN TULLY / monitor staff)

Matt Tupman on Thursday afternoon, July 25, 2013, at the Concord Sports Center where he is a hitting instructor. (JOHN TULLY / monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

Matt Tupman had two thoughts that day, when he tied the record for the top batting average in major league history.

First, calm down and stop hyperventilating.

Next, calm down and find the on-deck circle.

Once reaching those goals, the Concord High graduate socked a line-drive single to right field in his lone plate appearance ever in the big leagues.

And then, with the speed of that line drive hit five years ago in Miami, the Concord High graduate was gone, like some fictional character in a Hollywood movie. His batting average, a perfect 1.000, forever sits in the official baseball encyclopedia, an oddity that draws your attention and forces you to ask, “Who was this guy?”

Rarely have we seen a local athlete who’s combined so many layers of drama and intrigue. Tupman is one of three coaches for Post 21, Concord’s American Legion baseball team and the host of this weekend’s state tournament.

The games are being played at Doane Diamond, named after the coach who gave Tupman a second chance, and the field in which the kid showed off his laser-beam arm as a catcher in Concord’s baseball community.

This, Tupman said the other day, is where he belongs, coaching kids, giving back.

“It’s what I live for,” Tupman said, dressed in his uniform shortly before practice. “I’m so excited for this. I love coaching baseball now. It has come full circle.”

He once played with a roaring fire inside, fueled by a hardboiled youth that created a chip on his shoulder the size of second base. That fire made for hustle on the field, but led him to challenge authority off it.

He fought with his manager while in the Kansas City Royals’ farm system, batted .300 twice, received great reviews from the major league team, seemed destined to make millions of dollars and failed a pair of drug tests in a four-year stretch.

Then, as unsure as a rookie in his first major league game, he came home to Concord where it all started and faced challenges far greater than learning how to hit a curveball. Like finding a “real” job, his niche off the diamond. Like raising his two daughters. Like telling his oldest daughter why daddy had been suspended from the game.

The script, as of now, reads like a success story, despite the disappointment of the past, the major league career that never was. With video games buzzing all around and his team practicing behind a netting in the other room, Tupman is comfortable at the Concord Sports Center, where he teaches kids how to play the game right.

He gives private lessons and leads a feeder program, known as the Cannons, grooming players who later advance to Post 21. This is where Tupman, former college slugger Bryan Caruso of Northfield and NHTI coach Eric Duquette have created their baseball headquarters, a conveyor belt that, hopefully, rolls players toward college ball or, maybe, who knows?

A few parents have questioned Tupman’s methods, asking him if he needs to be so hard on his players. His exterior is rough, with chiseled good looks and a wry smile. He’s seen it all, done it all.

He speaks in a baritone voice and needs a shave. He’s always spoken his mind, and he’s not going to stop now, at 33, although we’ll see the softer side of Tupman later, the side that cried when he told his daughter about the drug suspension.

But about that toughness . . .

“He’s not afraid to tell you when you’re doing something wrong and how to fix it,” said Post 21 pitcher Eddie Dionne, who posted a 3-0 record this season. “I’ve had coaches who just say, ‘Good job,’ and, ‘Get them next time.’ He won’t do that.”

“I’ve had parents come to me and say the kids look up to me, and why do I have to be so hard on them,” Tupman said. “I tell them they asked me to train their son, get him ready for college or pro ball. This is the way it’s going to be. This is how I trained myself. I know my formula is going to work.”

It worked at Concord High, where the late Warren Doane took the troubled kid under his wing and put him on the team. It worked with the Concord Quarry Dogs, who played in one of the top amateur leagues in the country, and it worked at UMass Lowell, a Division II power.

Tupman was undersized, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound catcher with great hand-eye coordination, a great eye and no power. The Royals drafted him in the ninth round of the 2002 draft and assigned Tupman to their minor league affiliate in Spokane, Wash.

It was then, Tupman says, that he began to mend a broken relationship with his father, who he had known was an alcoholic since Tupman’s days at Concord High.

His father got a hotel room in Spokane and the next year in Burlington, Iowa. He went to the games early, watched batting practice and beamed with pride.

A heavy smoker, Tupman’s dad suffered a stroke in Burlington and later died of lung and brain cancer, shortly after Tupman’s second pro season, in 2003. He was 53.

“We had patched things up by then,” Tupman says. “I learned a lot about him, that he was sick. But once I got drafted, he was so proud.”

As a pro, Tupman had to balance who he was – a reckless young man, bitter from his father’s drinking and the critics who insisted he was too small and not good enough to play Division I college ball – with high pressure that he might not have been ready for.

That’s because his daughter, Gwendolyn, was just 2 when Tupman joined the Royals’ farm system. He has since married Gwen’s mother, Addie Vega, and the couple have had another daughter, Pippa, who just turned 1.

Before that, though, before the coaching career and the measured tone in his voice that you hear now, Tupman’s rebellious spirit got him in trouble with a former Gold Glove second baseman, Frank White, his manager at Double-A Wichita.

Tupman says White didn’t stick up for his players. He says once, after an umpire ejected him for arguing a play at the plate, Tupman mumbled something under his breath about White, heard by the pitching coach, who then relayed the info to White.

White then called Tupman into his office and told him to stick a sock in it.

“He said don’t you ever do that again, blah, blah, blah,” Tupman said. “I told him he doesn’t stick up for his players.”

Another time, Tupman was charged with a passed ball, which he insists hit the batter before skipping away, making it a dead ball and not Tupman’s fault. White blamed Tupman, who later brought the video into the clubhouse and showed White that the ball had, indeed, hit the batter.

“I wanted him to come out and argue for me,” Tupman says. “He wouldn’t even move. He called me an idiot.”

Then Tupman admits he was out of line, saying “I always felt I had something to prove. I have a sharp tongue.”

He says his big mouth might have had something to do with his failure to carve out a big league career, but he soon changes his tune, realizing the bottom line: Tupman simply didn’t have enough pop in his bat.

“If they didn’t like me, they would have released me,” Tupman says. “Performance outweighs personality.”

Still, he batted at least .300 twice in the minors. Tupman also played in the Caribbean World Series, for current Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson. He worked his way through the KC system, A-ball and High-A ball and Double-A and Triple-A, at Omaha of the Pacific Coast League.

Then, when Kansas City’s No. 1 catcher, John Buck, left the team to visit his wife, who’d given birth prematurely, Tupman got the call, joining the team in Florida.

On May 18, 2008, at Dolphins Stadium in Miami, Tupman pinch hit for Jimmy Gobble against Florida Marlins pitcher Kevin Gregg. A lifetime of thoughts and feelings rushed through Tupman’s mind, in just a few moments.

“I could barely breathe,” Tupman says. “A lot of emotions there, the history of my father and his alcoholism, growing up and all that bullcrap. I just got up there and then I didn’t even think.”

Tupman, a left-handed hitter, says Gregg’s first pitch was a fastball away for ball one. Then came a sinking fastball, and Tupman lined it to right field, just past second baseman Dan Uggla, to his left.

“I hit it really well, actually,” Tupman says.

He has the ball he hit, the bat he used and a DVD of the moment. The official lineup card from the dugout hangs on a wall at the Concord Sports Center, a line penciled through “TUPMAN” to show he played in the game.

And that was that.

The next day, Tupman and the Royals traveled to, of all places, Fenway Park, where Addie, Gwen and a family friend had been given tickets to watch Tupman. Before the game, though, Buck returned to the team, leaving Tupman out in the cold.

And in the stands, watching the game, with the players’ wives.

Jon Lester threw a no-hitter for the Red Sox that day, while Tupman knew his life was back to long bus rides, low pay and cheap hotels.

“It was kind of embarrassing,” Tupman said. “I guess I could have left the park.”

Late in 2009, while playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, Tupman tested positive for pot for the second time and was suspended for 50 games. He was not affiliated with a big league team at the time, having played for a short time in the Diamondbacks’ system after asking for his release from the Royals earlier in the year.

“We were down there partying,” Tupman says. “I really don’t have an excuse for it.”

Back in Concord, Gwen was in art class, with copies of the local newspaper below the day’s project, keeping the room clean. A classmate noticed a sports story, the one about the local ballplayer who broke baseball’s drug policy and had to pay for his actions.

Tupman had to explain to his daughter why he was home during the baseball season. The rugged catcher with the chip on his shoulder who had always followed his own path, who had gone toe-to-toe with Frank White, who had never allowed anyone to see his vulnerable side, was humbled by a little girl.

His little girl.

“I cried,” Tupman said. “It was harder than telling anyone here.”

That’s another story.

The Mets had offered Tupman a contract, but they pulled it away once the drug test surfaced. There was an offer to play in an independent league, in places called Lancaster and Somerset and Sugar Land, but those teams were not affiliated with a big league organization, and Tupman knew his chances of vaulting forward were slim.

Plus, the salary was about $250 per week, not nearly enough for the young father with the young wife and the young daughter, with another baby on the way.

So Tupman joined Caruso at the Concord Sports Center. His mother, Lisa, is the office manager there.

But family flavor aside, Tupman worried about how people – parents of players seeking instruction – would view him, conscious that they knew why this pro ballplayer wasn’t playing pro ball.

“I was really worried about Concord,” Tupman said. “I think at the beginning people were leery, but the fact that they come and meet me, everything has been all right.”

First baseman Dillon Emerson, Post 21’s leading hitter this year with a .400 batting average, knows where Tupman has been, what he’s done, how he’s behaved.

So?

“I knew about that, but it doesn’t change anything,” Emerson said. “One thing he also taught us is you don’t live in the past, and either way, he’s still a good guy, no matter what happened. I’m not going to change the way I look at him because he made a mistake.”

Post 21’s 2-1 win yesterday over Londonderry Post 27 puts Concord in good position to defend its state championship.

The team plays today at noon. The players say they’re ready, prepared by a coaching staff that won’t allow its team to take anything for granted.

Tupman is all over his players, making sure they remain grounded. He sees his undisciplined, late-night antics from years ago as a cry for help.

It’s time to help others.

“l feel like I am making an impact,” Tupman said. “I didn’t think the developmental aspect of the game was going to be fulfilling, but it really has been. It’s actually gratifying.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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