© AP Photo/Matt Slocum
NHL prospect Aaron Ekblad, right, take batting practice with former Philadelphia Phillies' Matt Stairs helping before a baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Wednesday, June 25, 2014, in Philadelphia. The NHL hockey draft is scheduled for June 27th and 28th in Philadelphia.
PHILADELPHIA — Matt Stairs made a career out of being able to hit a baseball a long way, but like a lot of Canadian kids, his first love was hockey.
“I played 70, 80 games of hockey and about 15 games of baseball,” Stairs said. “(I played) everywhere. In high school I had usually 18-minute shifts. I was coming off maybe once during the period.”
Stairs, now a TV broadcaster for the Philadelphia Phillies, wound up playing 19 major-league seasons with 12 different teams, including the Montreal Expos and Toronto Blue Jays. But hockey remains a constant in his life.
“I usually don’t miss a game,” Stairs said Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park, where he instructed six NHL draft prospects on how to hit a baseball off a tee. “(During the) playoffs I have the game on in the booth. Seems like everywhere I go, I’m so interested in hockey, the people who are with me watch hockey.”
Stairs grew up as a Montreal Canadiens fan in Fredericton, N.B. He’s still a fan but made sure to watch the Stanley Cup final even after the Habs were eliminated by the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference final.
“Hockey fan,” the 46-year-old said. “Doesn’t matter who it is. Just want to see a good hockey game. And I thought this year was the best playoff hockey that I’ve seen in many, many years. It was fun to watch.”
Stairs does more than just watch. He’s a volunteer coach — an assistant now but formerly the head man — for Fredericton High School’s team.
When Stairs was that age, hockey was in his veins. But you might not know what type of game he played judging from the burly physique that helped him hit 265 career home runs.
“I was a finesse (player),” Stairs said. “I was a lot smaller back in the day. I was the guy who had guys go into the corners for me. Little different now, I play old timers and I’m the guy going in to the corners. I was probably 80 pounds lighter in high school, I was 160, 150.”
A couple of the draft prospects Stairs worked with barely tip the scale beyond that. After watching them try to hit off a tee, Stairs called them “all future hockey guys,” but added they had some potential if they wanted to take up baseball.
For now, Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Leon Draisaitl, Michael Dal Colle and Anthony DeAngelo will stick to hockey. That’s OK with Stairs, who enjoyed meeting them.
“It’s fun having guys that I know I’m going to be watching in a few years be the superstars of the NHL coming up,” Stairs said. “To have a chance to be on the field with them, talk to them, (seeing) what they have baseball-wise is fun to watch. It’ll be fun to see these guys play.”
As a baseball man, Stairs also keeps his eye on the Blue Jays, who he said have to “hold on” and hope injuries are kept to a minimum.
“They beat us pretty bad — very bad — and I think actually they got hot after they played us,” Stairs said of four straight wins by the Jays over the Phillies in May. “They’re a team just as good as anyone else. They just have to be consistent and not rely (on home runs). When they’re not going well and not relying on the long ball, they’ve got to do the little things. ...
“Everyone talks about, ’Well, they haven’t been hitting the home runs,’ well, do the small things. Get the base hits and advance runners and they should be fine.”
Stairs thinks Canadian baseball as a whole is doing better than fine, thanks to the likes of Joey Votto and Justin Morneau picking up where Larry Walker and others left off.
“It’s nice to see a lot of Canadians do well and get an opportunity,” Stairs said. “It’s a little easier now than back when I signed because I signed as a free agent. These guys get to go to universities and stuff. But it’s nice seeing Canadian guys do well.”
Stairs’s biggest fan Wednesday at the ballpark was the only American present, DeAngelo. A Phillies fan from the Philadelphia area, DeAngelo remembers the monster home run Stairs hit during the 2008 World Series run and got to have a nice conversation with the National League Championship Series hero on the field.
“Matt Stairs just asked me where I was in 2008. I was sitting right over there behind home plate,” DeAngelo said. “I watch the Phillies every night when I can. I told him I see him on TV every day.”
Not too long from now, Stairs hopes to be watching these prospects play in the NHL.