A RISING ANGEL: Catcher Jeff Mathis

Jeff Mathis, Salt Lake City Stingers

We begin our weekly look into minor league baseball talent from the state of Florida with one of the rising stars of the game. Former Marianna High two-sport standout Jeff Mathis, who nearly became an FSU Seminole baseball/football player!

Today brings a new spotlight here at FloridaKids.us. Throughout the remainder of the spring and summer, we will have a feature each week, looking at Minor League baseball talent across the country from the Sunshine State.

This FREE feature will track talent who starred on high school baseball fields from Key West to Pensacola, and keep an eye on their progressive in towns and cities across the country.

We hope that this feature will help you rediscover the athletes you lost track of as they make a push toward the big leagues.

TODAY: Jeff Mathis
LEVEL: Triple-A
HOMETOWN: Marianna

You'll have to excuse Jeff Mathis if every once in a while he looks in the mirror and pinches himself. This 22-year-old is doing something that he thought about nearly every day of his young life.

One step away from wearing a major league uniform, Mathis today spends his time learning and listening. He has worked hard and made every second count as he has steadily climbed the ladder in the Los Angeles Angels' organization.

Considered to be one of the top young prospects in the game today, Mathis is not cocky or overconfident. He remembers where he came from, and knows that as quickly as things have arrived, they can disappear if he loses focus.

"The one thing about playing minor league baseball is you realize that you are here to learn," said Mathis. "You watch and listen and do what the coaches and instructors tell you to do."

Jeff Mathis
Los Angeles Angels Organization

Born and raised in the small North Florida town of Marianna, which sits to the west of Tallahassee, Mathis has always been about dreams. If he wasn't hitting homeruns in the world series, the talented athlete was throwing passes for his favorite college team, Florida State University.

While many had predicted that Mathis would be one of the top baseball players the area had produced, many talked about his ability to play quarterback. So gifted was he that in his senior season, he led the Bulldogs to the 2000 state championship game against Miami Gulliver Prep.

Dressed in their University of Washington purple, gold and white, Mathis led his team onto Florida Field in Gainesville for the historic meeting with the Raiders.

"We felt confident that day," Mathis remembers. "We had one of the best running backs in the state and a team that believed we could win."

What Mathis and the Bulldogs never figured on that day was running into a two-way star like Sean Taylor, who just dominated. The gifted football talent who went on to star for the University of Miami before being selected by the Washington Redskins, showed exactly why he was being recruited by every college in the country.

While it was the start of a tremendous career for Taylor, it would be the last time Mathis lined up under center. His letter of intent to attend FSU to play for the baseball team and perhaps one day have the opportunity to walk on and play for the Seminole football program never materialized. The Angels made an offer in June of 2001 that was too tough to turn down.

"I would have liked to go to college and play baseball and football," Mathis said. "But the Angels picked me as the No. 33 "sandwich" selection between the first and second round. That was something that I couldn't pass up."

While he thought about what he turned down to sign professionally, Mathis quickly forgot about it as the Angels sent him to the Pioneer League in 2001 with Provo (Utah). It was there this organization started to see exactly what they got in this promising catching prospect.

In his first season, at the age of 18, he hit .299 at Provo and .304 in seven games with Arizona Angels of the Arizona Fall League.

"When I finished the first season, I knew that I made the right decision," Mathis said. "Even though I was getting paid for what I was doing, I was still having plenty of fun and willing to do what ever it took to reach my potential."

In 2002, the Angels sent their promising star to the Midwest League (Cedar Rapids), where he played in 128 games, hitting .287. The following season, which began with the Angels during spring training, is where Mathis, the hitting prospect, made an impression at Class A Rancho Cucamonga (California League) where he hit .323 in 98 games. He was promoted to Double-A Arkansas that same year where he would hit .284 in 24 games.

Last season, the Angels wanted to get a good look at their prospect as they sent him to Arkansas for the full season. Although he hit only .223 in 116 games, he showed that defensively, he was one of the best in the game.

"I worked extremely hard to get better," Mathis said. "All along, the coaches had told me not worry about my average, everything would work its way out."

When this season rolled around, the Angels had added Mathis to the 40-man roster for spring training. While he was a realist and knew that with Bengie and Jose Molina, and Josh Paul on the roster, it would be a spring of learning.

"I can remember being told to watch, learn to handle the pitchers and work as hard as possible," Mathis said. "The experience of being on the 40-man roster was something that gave me a lift going into this season."

So far this season at Salt Lake City, Mathis is catching three to four games a week and has been one of the top hitters for a team that spent most of the first two weeks on top.

As he sat in his hotel room in Las Vegas, I reminded him about all those star football players who gave baseball a try first. Names like Josh Booty, Chris Weinke, Danny Ainge, Drew Henson, Quincy Carter, and Floridians like Kay Jay Harris (West Virginia) and Vernand Morency (Oklahoma State). As he began to comment on those players, Mathis stopped for a moment.

"I really have been all about baseball," he said. "While football was fun and I still miss playing it, I am exactly where I want to be. Believe me!"

If you have a player who is in the minor leagues this summer from the state of Florida, please let us know at www.floridakids.us. Just e-mail me at FloridaKids1@hotmail.com.

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