One & Done: Matt Tupman’s hit made him feel like a Royal success
In the world of sports, athletes often dedicate their entire lives to reaching the pinnacle of their profession, but for many, life at the top can be short-lived. Sometimes all a player gets to experience at the highest level is one minute on the court, one trip to the plate, one shot on goal or one checkered flag, but more often than not, that fleeting moment in the spotlight is a story all its own. This is One and Done, a FOX Sports series profiling athletes, their paths to success and the stories behind some of sports’ most ephemeral brushes with glory.
When Matt Tupman reflects on his professional baseball career, he sometimes can’t help but think of himself as a modern-day Moonlight Graham.
A real-life ballplayer, Graham had one career major league appearance with the New York Giants in 1905 before retiring to become a doctor, having never stepped to the plate in a major league game. Graham’s story was popularized in the movie "Field of Dreams," when Graham’s character, played by the late Burt Lancaster, talked to Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella about his one wish in life.
"I never got to bat in the major leagues," Graham famously told Kinsella in the film of his lone appearance, lamenting the fact that he never got an opportunity to hit. "I’d have liked to have had that chance, just once, to stare down a big league pitcher — to stare him down, and just as he goes into his windup, wink, make him think you know something he doesn’t. That’s what I wish for.
"The chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it, to feel the tingle in your arm as you connect with the ball, to run the bases, stretch a double into a triple and flop, face-first, into third, and wrap your arms around the bag. That’s my wish, Ray Kinsella. That’s my wish."
In the movie, Graham eventually did have his wish come true, driving in a run on a sacrifice fly during a game in Kinsella’s one-time cornfield. However, in the case of Tupman, a former catcher with the Kansas City Royals, he stepped to the plate without the benefit of movie magic and revisionist history. And in his only career at-bat in the major leagues, he ripped a single to right field, a career highlight that’s as important to Tupman today as it was inconsequential to the only game he played.
Looking back, it was my only shot, so it was kind of meant to be, I guess.
"It was a big relief," Tupman told FOX Sports in a recent interview. "Looking back, it was my only shot, so it was kind of meant to be, I guess. I do a lot of coaching nowadays, and it reminds me of ‘Field of Dreams’. I always tell my kids, ‘What was Moonlight Graham’s wish in that movie?’ He got the one at-bat and got his sac fly, so I kind of feel like that."
A ninth-round pick by the Royals in the 2002 draft, Tupman never figured his big league career would turn out to be a cup of coffee.
Though never known for his bat, Tupman was a solid defender, and after batting .281 at Triple-A Omaha in 2007, then posting a .293 average in the Dominican league that winter, the light-hitting Tupman actually began the 2008 season as part of the Royals’ Opening Day roster while Kansas City’s regular backup catcher, Miguel Olivo, served a four-game suspension stemming from a fight that occurred during the final week of the 2007 season.
Tupman never took the field during the Royals’ season-opening series at Detroit or the first game of the following series at Minnesota and was sent back to Omaha on April 5, but he was recalled on May 16, when starting catcher John Buck was granted leave to be with his wife, who had delivered the couple’s twin boys seven weeks premature.
As he had during his first big league stint, Tupman remained on the bench during a 7-6 win over the Marlins in his first game back with the team and also did not play in Kansas City’s 7-3 loss the next night. With Buck expected to rejoin the team that Monday in Boston, Tupman knew May 18 might be his last chance to get in a game until his next call-up, whenever that might be.
Coming into the afternoon tilt, Tupman was optimistic that he might get the start with Zack Greinke on the mound — both members of the 2002 draft class, the two were teammates in Spokane during their respective rookie seasons and also played together in Wichita in 2006, as Greinke was working his way back to the majors after a social anxiety disorder led to him leaving the club — but manager Trey Hillman instead decided to start Olivo for the fourth straight game.
Little did Tupman know, another teammate was jockeying to get him onto the field.
A highly paid newcomer with the Royals at the time, Kansas City outfielder Jose Guillen had gotten to know Tupman the previous winter in Guillen’s native Dominican Republic, where he also appeared in one game alongside Tupman with Licey. During that time, the two grew friendly, and so with the game against the Marlins all but secured, Guillen concocted a plan with the Dominican-born Olivo to force Hillman’s hand and get Tupman in the lineup.
Jose was one of the team leaders at that point in time, and he knew that I should have gotten an at-bat, but in all honesty, for some reason, the manager didn’t like me.
"Jose was one of the team leaders at that point in time, and he knew that I should have gotten an at-bat, but in all honesty, for some reason, the manager didn’t like me," said Tupman, who had previously clashed with Double-A manager Frank White, as well. "I was called up in a time of necessity, so he was reluctant to really, actually, play me.
"But Jose, knowing I could play and knowing what I did all winter long, knowing it was the right thing to do — we were blowing them out — he had Miguel, who was the starting catcher that day, basically go to Hillman and say, ‘Look man, I feel sick, it’s a hot day in Miami,’ and he basically took himself out of the game so that I could get one at-bat.’
"So I’m really thankful to Miguel Olivo and Jose Guillen for it," Tupman continued. "Because they actually, being the veterans that they were, saw that it was the right thing to do for someone who had been there for so long, you know? They threw me a bone."
And when he finally got his chance, pinch hitting for pitcher Jimmy Gobble in the top of the ninth with one out and a 9-3 lead, Tupman rewarded Guillen’s faith. However, Tupman’s first big league at-bat, against Florida closer Kevin Gregg, didn’t come without nerves.
"The Miami stadium at that point in time was still like a football field, so there was no real on-deck circle," Tupman said. "So I was trying to find the on-deck circle, and I was really nervous. I had like two practice swings and I was up there, but I liked it better like that. I didn’t want to be thinking about it too much.
"All I knew (about Gregg) was that he was a big donkey who I’d seen on ‘SportsCenter’ closing out games. That was really about it, but I didn’t care who it was up there. I was either striking out or hitting it hard. I wasn’t going to be walking. I was up there to swing."
Gregg’s first pitch to Tupman was a ball, a sinker low and away. Then on the next pitch, a high splitter, Tupman pulled a single to right, just past Dan Uggla. With Tupman on first, Olivo then came up to bat — Tupman replaced Olivo on defense to complete the double switch in the bottom of the ninth — and lined out to second base, and Tupman was doubled up on first.
Still, Tupman says the brief nature of the moment didn’t diminish the accomplishment.
"I was in tears afterward," Tupman said. "My father had died in 2003 when I was in the minor leagues. He was retired and used to travel every summer to come see me play. It would have been something that he’d have really been proud of me for."
Unfortunately for Tupman, the beginning of his major league career would also be the end.
Tupman traveled with the team to Boston, near his hometown of Concord, N.H., for the following game but was sent back down that day after Buck met the team at Fenway Park. So rather than experience Jon Lester’s no-hitter that night from the dugout — or perhaps get a chance to break it up, himself — Tupman watched it from the players’ wives section at the ballpark alongside his wife and daughter, who had come to the game hoping for a chance to see him play.
The next day, Tupman returned to Omaha, where the Royals (now called the Storm Chasers) were hosting the Iowa Cubs. He finished the 2008 season hitting just .229, and after an injury in the Dominican Republic that fall led to shoulder surgery in October, Tupman found himself a minor league free agent with a bum arm and no team.
At the time, Royals assistant GM J.J. Piccolo indicated the club intended to bring Tupman back, and Tupman went on to sign a contract with the team that December, but in June it granted Tupman’s request to be released. He reappeared in the Diamondbacks organization a couple weeks later and hit .254 in 38 games at Double-A Mobile, but a second positive test for marijuana that winter in the Dominican Republic earned Tupman a 50-game suspension and effectively ended his baseball career.
Aside from a brief stint with the independent Lancaster Barnstormers in 2011, Tupman has instead focused his efforts on coaching, working with kids at Concord Sports Center, a few miles up Interstate 93 from where he was once a prep star. And though his playing career is long since over, every once in a while, Tupman’s "Moonlight Graham" story will still come up — and he’s more than happy to tell it.
"I wish I wasn’t (out of the game), but I am," said Tupman, who still has the bat, ball and lineup card from his only big league appearance, along with a DVD of his lone at-bat. "I’m in my hometown, so people are always asking, wanting to know. It’s not like I’m a celebrity, but it gets brought up.
"Everyone has their tale," he added of his perfect career batting average. "A fan might see 1-for-1, 1.000, but there’s so much more that goes into it. It was 28 years of hard work put into that single."
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