It was a first for the two brothers, playing on the same Major League field.
Graduating from the childhood batting cages of their backyard, life had come full circle for Matt and Jonny Diaz. Their parents smiled from the stands; they couldn’t have been more proud. Each young man had followed his own individual calling, but this Saturday night they both found themselves delivering for Braves’ fans at Turner Field—one with a bat, the other with a guitar.
Affectionately known as “MattE” (his middle name is Edward) since the first grade, Matt was in his second season with the Braves and was working to establish a presence in a veteran-dominated clubhouse. Jonny, an independent recording artist who had just released his third album, was looking to make a name for himself on Music Row.
Matt Diaz #23
Birthdate: March 3, 1978
2007 stats: 12 HR, 45 RBI, .338 avg.
Trivia: He is the co-owner of the Major League record for hits in consecutive at-bats (10).
Catch Jonny live in one of the following areas:
April 17-19: Willow Creek Community Church (South Barrington, Ill.)
April 25-27: Methodist Spring Fling (Panama City Beach, Fla.)
May 30-June 1: Trinity United Methodist Church (Opelika, Ala.)
June 20: Atlanta Fest
June 21: Alive Festival/Clay’s Park Resort (North Lawrence, Ohio)
July 14: Boonclarken (Flat Rock, S.C.)
Shades of White -- August 2003
Everyday God -- September 2005
They Need Love -- March 2007
For more information, visit jonnydiaz.com.
On Aug. 4, 2007, both made a big hit . . .
Punishing the ball from the plate, Matt slammed a 347-foot home run to right field in the second inning, and Jonny brought the crowd to its feet with his onstage performance at the post-game Third Coast Sports Faith Night concert. To say the least, it was a memorable night for the Diaz family—and one that had been a long time coming.
In pursuit of their individual dreams, both brothers have experienced ups and downs—literally for Matt, who worked his way from Single A to the Majors only to wind up repeating all three minor-league levels. But through every setback, both Matt and Jonny have remained fixed to their God-given course, focused on the One who anointed their dreams from the beginning.
With four stars in the family, the name Diaz has been virtually synonymous with baseball around Lakeland, Fla., since the 1980s. It all began when Ed Diaz, the boys’ father, started coaching his oldest son, Zach’s, T-ball team. A spunky 3-year-old at the time, Matt would often head out to practice with his father and brother. But what started as a tag-along proved to be the start of something great.
“He’s legendary in Lake Wales (Fla.), because at age 3 or 4, he hit a wiffle ball over a doctor’s house—where no man had gone before.”
– Ed Diaz
Call it love at first hit.
“Even as a 3-year-old, MattE could swing the bat,” said Ed, who also serves as the Spring Training chaplain for the Detroit Tigers. “He’s legendary in Lake Wales (Fla.), because at age 3 or 4, he hit a wiffle ball over a doctor’s house—where no man had gone before.”
By the time Jonny, the youngest, came along, there were three older Diazes involved in various levels of baseball. Even though Ed had played football at the University of Pennsylvania, his first love had always been America’s pastime. So, when Zach showed serious interest in the sport at age 7, Ed knew what he had to do: build a batting cage.
“Our first batting cage was an old chain link,” Matt said with a laugh. “But that wasn’t too smart, because as you keep hitting balls into the fence, the holes get bigger. The balls ended up escaping all the time. When I was about 12, we finally got a real net, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever.”
Even mom, Gwen, stepped up to the plate, throwing wiffle balls to the boys when Dad was out of town ministering at churches. But both parents made sure that baseball remained a pastime, not an all-consuming lifestyle for the family. It was never forced, only nurtured.
Want to know how Ed Diaz describes his four sons? As the animals they are!
Zach: Golden Retriever ... Eager to please, compliant and a great role model.
Matt: Otter ... Fun to play with, but very competitive.
Ben: Lion ... The strong leader.
Jonny: Beaver ... Hard worker who is focused and diligent.
Clockwise from top: Matt, Ben, Jonny, Zach
“I don’t ever remember feeling pressured to play baseball,” Matt recalled. “Matter of fact, Ben (the second youngest) didn’t play baseball for two years in high school. He wanted to play golf, so he did.”
Still, all four were recruited to play baseball at Florida State University—something that came as a bit of a disappointment to the Majors-focused Matt.
After being named Collegiate Baseball’s Blue Chip Catcher of the Year his senior year of high school, Matt figured being drafted would be automatic. Even if it was in the last round, he was bent on signing. But he was never given the chance, as the draft came and went without a call.
With less than two weeks before classes, Matt reluctantly signed with FSU. Despite his uncertainty, the choice ultimately proved to be a good one. Accolades poured in throughout his career as he was named an All-American both as a freshman and a sophomore, and he maintained a .384 average at the plate. His stats caught the attention of the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who selected him as the 505th overall draft pick in 1999.
It wasn’t the number Matt had been hoping for, but it did offer a chance at the Big Leagues, so he accepted. After only three weeks in the minors, however, Matt called his agent to ask if there was any way he could return to Florida State. He was struggling at the plate, batting only .240, which was far below the standard for an All-American. But the Seminoles were a thing of the past, and Matt was forced to battle through that and another season with little improvement.
After a discouraging knee injury in 2000, he had all but given up. “I called my fiancee at the time—now my wife, Leslee—and told her I was retiring at the All-Star break,” Matt said. “So, we prayed about it, and when we were hanging up she said, ‘Have you asked God about it?’ And that really hit me right in the chest. I realized that I hadn’t been trusting in Him at all.”
Immediately, he began to re-evaluate his situation. It finally clicked: God was the One in control. All Matt needed to do was rely on God and follow His lead instead of his own.
The lesson wasn’t easy to learn, as he waited three more years for his first appearance in the Majors—six before landing a consistent spot on a Big League roster.
“When I was first traded to the Braves in 2005, in the back of my mind, I thought I was never going to make it to the Big Leagues,” Matt said. “If I couldn’t make it with Tampa and Kansas City, how was I going to make it with an organization that was always in the playoffs?”
During a road trip to play the Phillies in 2007, Matt and several Christian Braves and Phillies helped the Philadelphia FCA staff with a youth baseball clinic. The players shared testimonies and provided first-class baseball instruction to the kids in the crowd. Said FCA’s Terry Hill, who organized the event, “Matt really resonated with the kids. That helped them because they saw this Major Leaguer talk about the same problems that they have growing up. He really spoke to the Christian kids who were relying on their parents’ faith—how he finally had to make it his own faith. He was so personable.”
His attitude was softened, however, by a few words of encouragement from a reputable source.
“That first Spring Training, Bobby Cox pulled me aside about the fifth day of camp and said, ‘Hey, I saw your hitting film from last year with the Royals, and I think you can help our team.’ For some reason that just gave me the confidence I needed to go out there and play. When one of the best managers in the history of the game comes up and tells you he thinks you can help his team, it gives you a boost.”
Since then, Matt has been a strong presence at the plate for the Braves, even etching his name in the National League record books on Aug. 14, 2006, after hitting safely in 10 consecutive at-bats. The left fielder’s .333 average since the start of ’06 also has him tied for second in the Majors.
But Matt is quick to deflect any idea that he has officially “made it.”
“I don’t know if it is the way my career has gone, but I am not going to take anything for granted,” he said. “It would be great if we made it to the playoffs. Then it might sink in that I played for that caliber of a team. But there is definitely more to life than baseball.”
A Different World
When the Diaz boys were young, Ed, who had always enjoyed music, would harmonize with the radio to entertain his son, Jonny, during car rides. The youngest Diaz loved music, too. Then later, Ed’s old, dusty guitar caught Jonny’s eye, just begging to be played.
It fit like a glove.
Following his brothers’ footsteps, Jonny attended FSU to play baseball. But after his freshman season, he felt God calling him to lay his bat down and permanently and pick up the guitar.
“Baseball was fun and important, but Jonny realized he couldn’t do baseball, music and school,” Ed said. “It came down to a priority decision.”
It turned out to be a no-brainer.
“Watching Matt, I got to see the reality of baseball,” Jonny said. “I could spend four years in college, really pressing into baseball and working hard, and most likely it wouldn’t turn into a Major League career. Or I could spend the next years of college writing songs and developing a fan base. I realized music was the
best use of my time. It was where God had gifted me.”
“I truly feel like this last CD was Jonny’s first September call-up.” – Matt Diaz
Jonny took the songs he had worked on in the previous years and recorded his first CD, Shades of White, surprising even himself by selling all 1,000 copies in less than three months.
“After all the copies were gone and it was time to order a new batch, I finally realized [my music] was something people wanted to hear and that there might be something to this,” he said.
Jonny has since followed up his debut with two additional CDs, most recently They Need Love in 2007. He currently travels across the country to perform, and Matt has been right there to offer encouragement along the way.
“I truly feel like this last CD was Jonny’s first September call-up,” Matt said. “I think he is ready to explode. There is just a depth of his lyrics and an honesty that Christian music really needs. And the first time I heard that a Christian radio station in our area had picked up his song and that people where calling in and asking for it, I was extremely proud of him.”
Life Goes On
When asked what it takes to be successful in their respective careers, both brothers answered the same: perseverance.
“We both see that adhering to what God says and doing His will really does pay off in the end.” – Matt Diaz
“I wasn’t the high draft pick that was going to get pushed through the minor leagues,” Matt said. “I was a 17th-rounder who had to prove himself at every level. I had to persevere and live out James 1:2-4 in my career.”
Added Jonny: “What I really wanted and what I worked really hard for was baseball, and God had something else for me. I pursued what I wanted for so long and ultimately found no joy. But I now find joy in what God wants instead of what my desires may be.”
Funny how these lessons mirror one another—a parallel that has not gone unnoticed.
“Jonny went to college to play baseball, and when God called him away from it he struggled, but ultimately went,” Matt said. “He has remained faithful to traveling and singing, and I have had to remain faithful to God to travel and play baseball. We both see that adhering to what God says and doing His will really does pay off in the end.”
It certainly has. And the hits just keep on coming.
FCA: All in the Family
Baseball and music aren’t the only Diaz passions. FCA has been a significant part of their family for years. All four brothers were active in the ministry as student-athletes, and several even established significant life connections through FCA. Zach, the oldest Diaz brother, was married by his FSU FCA baseball chaplain, and Ed, also a volunteer baseball coach at Lakeland High School, recently began a team Huddle.
Matt, who was FCA vice president in high school, recalled one of his first memories of FCA: “Even in junior high, Zach, who was in the ninth grade when I was in the seventh, would ride bikes with me up to school for our FCA Huddle before class started. FCA taught me how Christianity can relate to sports. You need a Huddle like you need a team. You can’t do it all on your own.”
Jonny agrees. He has taken time out of his touring schedule to play for Huddles in his hometown, where he shares the testimony of how God called him into music.
“There is a big mission field at every school, and when you are doing battle all day long, it can really wear on you,” said the youngest Diaz, who served as his high school’s FCA president for two years. “FCA gives people who are serious about Christ an opportunity to recharge.”
Still active in FCA as well, Matt has also participated in FCA clinics and speaking engagements across the country.
“I was very impressed by MattE when he shared to more than 300 kids at a local high school FCA meeting,” said Charlie Warren, FCA area director in West Central Florida. “He just has a heart for souls, and when he gets the opportunity to minister, he does. He is a super young man with a super family, and I can’t say enough good things about them."
*For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Photos courtesy of the Atlanta Braves, Gwen Diaz, Terry Hill, Tec Petaja/Brian Simpson