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'I can’t believe I’m here:' Diamondbacks' Matt Peacock went from the sawmill to the history books

Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY
·9 min read
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PHOENIX — Paw Paw and his RV, traveling 4 ½ days and 1,700 miles from Mobile, Alabama, will be proudly sitting at Chase Field on Friday at the Arizona Diamondbacks’ home opener.

Harvey Morris, 78, isn’t about to miss the chance to see his grandson, new D-backs reliever Matt Peacock, pitch in the Major Leagues with his very own eyes.

Morris already is kicking himself for missing history Tuesday when Peacock made his major-league debut and became the first pitcher since 1945 to win an extra-inning game and produce a hit in his first game against the Colorado Rockies in Denver, while listening to his daughter, Missy Nolen (Matt’s mom) cry joyously on the phone.

“It was 1 in the morning when Matt struck out that last batter for the win,’’ Morris said, “and my wife, Ruby, started screaming inside the RV Park in Albuquerque. We were just hoping we didn’t wake up any of the neighbors. We couldn’t believe it."

Morris sent a text message to his grandson congratulating him the next morning. It was one of 170 messages that Peacock received after the Diamondbacks’ 10-8, 13-inning victory over the Rockies. He came into the game in the 11th inning, gave up two unearned runs in three innings, and by the end of the night, was the winning pitcher, and even got a base hit.

Diamondbacks relief pitcher Matt Peacock celebrates after the final out of the game.
Diamondbacks relief pitcher Matt Peacock celebrates after the final out of the game.

Peacock got the game ball from the final out, the baseball from his hit, and the lineup card commemorating his historic debut. He was the first pitcher since Marino Pieretti of the 1945 Washington Senators to make his major-league debut in an extra-inning game, record a victory, and collect a hit.

“I never thought that I’d be wearing steel-toed boots covered with oil, welding just a few years ago in the sawmill,“ Peacock told USA TODAY Sports, “to now wearing baseball spikes and pitching in the big leagues.

“There are people giving me this food in the clubhouse that’s amazing. I’m like, 'What’s is going on here.' I feel like I should be helping them out. They got guys putting my clothes away. I’m like, 'Hey, let me do that.'

“I still can’t believe I’m here.’’

Well, to be honest, neither can a whole lot of folks in Peacock’s life.

This is a 27-year-old who had only one Division 1 scholarship offer out of Saraland (Alabama) High School, struggled with a 11.29 ERA in his first two collegiate seasons, got hurt, underwent elbow surgery, quit the baseball team, and went to work it at the family saw mill.

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“I thought I was done, I think a lot of people did,’’ Peacock said. “I got a bone spur removed. I strained my forearm. I couldn’t throw a ball 60 feet. I figured it was time to get on with life.’’

He walked up to South Alabama coach Mark Calvi, told him to give his scholarship to someone else, and hit the saw mill tour for Morris Industrial Corporation, started by his grandfather, traveling from Luka, Mississippi, to the Florida Panhandle, to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Illinois.

“There were a lot of 90-hour weeks, but you get double-time,’’ Peacock said. “Even starting out, with no education, you could make $1,500 a week. There was a lot of travel, and some of the hotels, well, some of them were pretty sketchy. We had to leave in the middle of the night.

“Sometimes the only place you could eat was at truck stops where you could grab venison sausage and crackers.’’

Well, one day working on top of a boiler, he started to smell something peculiar and suddenly realized his own boots were melting.

“That’s when I said,’’ Peacock said, “I’m going to try baseball again.’’

Said Grandpa Morris, lovingly called “Paw Paw" by Peacock ever since he could talk: “I thought he was through with it, I really did. He had such trouble with his control, he couldn’t hit the ground with his cap.’’

Matt Peacock's extended family, from left to right: Scott Gifford, Suzan Gifford, Preslie Peacock, Missy Nolen, Matthew Gaeta, Gary Nolen.
Matt Peacock's extended family, from left to right: Scott Gifford, Suzan Gifford, Preslie Peacock, Missy Nolen, Matthew Gaeta, Gary Nolen.

Peacock approached Calvi, asked him if he could rejoin the team, and was welcomed back.

No questions asked.

No hard feelings.

“I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t a little bit surprised,’’ Calvi said. "I loved the kid. He gave everything. But when he quit, I told him, 'Man, I understand. This is a hard game. It’s frustrating you. If there are things frustrating in our life, if there’s a road block in your way, get rid of it.'

“You’re smart. You got a great family. Good luck.’’

The year away from the game completely changed the way Peacock viewed baseball. He suddenly was unafraid of failure. He quit running away from pressure. The negative forces that robbed him of his talent turned into a positive energy where he finally believed he belonged.

“Spiritually, he came back completely a different animal,’’ Calvi said. “It wasn’t like we did some séance, or used a Ouija board or had performance-enhancing doctors. There was no Pandora’s Box or magic pill. He inadvertently hit the reset button."

Even Mom could barely recognize this was her same son.

“The confidence was different, the poise was different,’’ Nolen said. “I know my son, and I know something was different. I followed him to a tournament in Pensacola, saw him come in and strike out the side. He quit putting pressure on himself.

“I called my husband, Gary, on the phone and said, “This isn’t the same kid.’’

Peacock, dominating hitters with his 92-95-mph sinker, became South Alabama’s closer. He yielded a 2.96 ERA in 26 games, striking out 56 batters in 51 ⅔ innings with 18 walks.

He still slid on the draft board before finally being drafted in the 23rd round by the Diamondbacks. He spent the first three years progressing through their minor-league system, but when the 2020 season was shut down because of COVID-19, he wasn’t selected by the D-backs to pitch in their alternate site. He instead spent the summer working for his grandfather, helping build a barn, construct fences, make furniture, while also setting up a mattress in the backyard to fire pitches against during the week.

Peacock knew he was doing something right because when he was invited by the D-backs to pitch in their instructional league during the fall, they saw enough promise to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft.

“It’s weird, after leaving baseball and coming back,’’ Peacock said, “I see the game a little different than anyone else. I know there are things you can be doing, like working 12-hour shifts, and just not enjoying life as much. So, I don’t let the moment get too big. I stay in the moment.’’

Certainly, he proved it during his debut, figuring he had no chance to enter a close game only to realize he was the last pitcher remaining in the bullpen. Agent Matt Gaeta, sitting with the Peacock’s extended family and friends, was the first to notice that Peacock was getting ready when he took off his hoodie, and flipped his hair in the bullpen.

“Literally," Gaeta said, “that’s when everyone started freaking out.’’

Peacock’s mom, Missy, celebrating her 50th birthday, started praying, crying and pacing.

“I could barely breath,’’ Nolen said. “It felt like it was 20 degrees, my chest was very tight, and my anxiety was very real. It was so nerve racking. I’ll be honest, I was crying a lot just thinking about everything he overcame, and now all of his efforts and perseverance was coming to fruition.’’

And when it was finally over?

“I danced a little bit,’’ she said. “I cried a little bit. And I hugged a few strangers.’’

Hey, can you blame mom? And dad? And the newlywed wife? And the in-laws? And the close friends? And the agent?

They walked down behind home plate after the game, took a few quick pictures with Peacock, and joked about him running the bases with a helmet that was two sizes too big.

“They couldn’t find my helmet,’’ Peacock said, “so I used (teammate) Riley Smith’s. I really didn’t think it would matter because I didn’t think I’d get on base. And when I was running, I felt like one of those bobblehead dolls.

“I Forrest Gump’d around those bases.’’

Peacock, who was given a celebratory beer shower by his teammates, got back to the team hotel, tried to fall asleep, but the adrenaline rush was still surging. The last time he remembers looking at the clock it was 3:30 in the morning.

He woke up seven hours later, pinched himself to make sure it wasn’t a dream, and a phone filled with congratulatory messages, some from those he hadn’t talked to since he was a kid.

And grandpa, who limits himself to 475 miles a day on the RV, couldn’t be prouder. He vows to do his best to keep following him around the country in his RV, just as he did throughout the minor leagues.

“It’s going to be a lot tougher to follow him in the big leagues unless you have your own plane,’’ Morris said. “It’s not like we can pick up and go to Jackson (Mississippi) or Biloxi (Mississippi). We even once went all of the way to Vancouver and Oregon in our RV.

“But we are serious followers, I’m his No. 1 fan, and I’m going to keep on driving to see my grandson pitch as much as I possibly can.’’

Says Peacock: “I loved working for my grandfather and being in the family business, but playing baseball for a living, and having your grandfather watch you in person, how can you beat that?"

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Matt Peacock, Diamondbacks reliever, almost gave up on baseball career