More than a game

Matt Flemer spent his senior year as a starting pitcher for the Bears. But baseball is more than a game of numbers to him.

Eugene W. Lau/Staff

Eugene W. Lau/Staff

Eugene W. Lau/Staff

Underneath the bill of Matt Flemer’s blue baseball cap, three initials are stenciled in bold capital letters: TDM.

Those initials belong to the late Tyler De Martini, an El Cerrito High School student who was killed in a skateboarding accident earlier this year. De Martini was the Little League teammate of Flemer’s younger brother, Kevin.

“(De Martini) was always the kid that had the biggest smile,” Flemer says. “And he was the epitome of why kids want to play baseball. He just loved playing the game.”

Flemer doesn’t describe his relationship with De Martini as “close.” But De Martini’s life — and untimely death — touched Femer enough to spur Cal’s ace to stencil in those initials.

“You’re never guaranteed the next day in any facet, anything you do,” Flemer says. “Remembering to enjoy each day, just knowing that each day is a blessing is something that he reminds me of.”

It’s a statement that doesn’t necessarily reveal everything about Flemer. But it tells a lot about why he loves playing the game of baseball. Even as his team fades from postseason contention, those initials on his cap are a reminder that baseball like life, is more than a game of numbers.

Matt Flemer has devoted himself to baseball since he was barely old enough to walk. He used to hit wiffle balls from a pop-up machine when he was one or two years old, and the passion exploded from there.

Flemer’s passion for the sport deepened over the years, his first taste of baseball success coming as a member of a AAU travel team. Competing alongside future teammates Logan Scott, Marcus Semien and Tony Renda, Flemer and his squad won the AAU 14-under National Championships.

“From there it was like ‘Ok, I know I can compete at the highest level of competition that there is,’” Flemer says. “And everybody’s goal is to be a Major League Baseball player if you grow up playing baseball.”

Yet Flemer faced an uncertain future upon coming to Cal. Recruited as both a pitcher and a first baseman, Flemer struggled at the plate and eventually gave up hitting. As a freshman, the righty split time between the rotation and the bullpen, finishing with a 7.94 ERA. For the next two years his coaches told him to pitch from the bullpen, and Flemer accepted his assignment without question.

One thing that separates Flemer from other elite players is his coachability, his malleability. Whether starting or closing, he is willing to make an individual sacrifice for the good of the team. He can throw four pitches for strikes, but as a reliever he only got to utilize two. On the other hand, starting usually robs him of the opportunity to finish a game on the mound, something he calls “the coolest thing any baseball player can do.”

“I’ve always had kind of a closer’s mentality but a starter’s arsenal,” he says. “I feel like I’m not just one-dimensional as a pitcher. I can do both, and I’m ready for whatever situation that I’m put in.”

Last year, Flemer found himself at the bottom of a dogpile after recording the final out as Cal advanced to the College World Series. This year, his stats have been even better as a starter.

Flemer’s 7-5 record and 2.74 ERA are actually misleading. Fifteen of the 31 earned runs Flemer has allowed on the year came in two rough starts against Nebraska and UCLA, in which he persevered into the late innings despite the scores running out of hand. Take those away, and his ERA dips to a microscopic 1.64, which would place him firmly in discussions for National Player of the Year.

“When he’s beyond the point of no return, he’s not going to come back for us. He could save our pen by pitching throwing 100 pitches,” Cal coach David Esquer says.

That mentality doesn’t always show up on the scoresheet. It’s the team that Flemer takes seriously, not himself. Every time he takes the mound, he checks his ego at the door. Baseball, like life, is too short a game to fuss over things like that.

In last year’s MLB Draft, Flemer went in the 19th round to Kansas City. Flemer could have taken the money and left.

“Everyone’s dream is to become a professional baseball player one day,” he says. “And that door was open for me right there.”

But Flemer opted to stay at Cal, citing his teammates as a primary motivation for his return.

“This is really a big part of my life, being a part of this program,” he says.

Flemer doesn’t lack the internal will to win. He just recognizes that, at the end of the day, baseball is about more than wins and losses. Which is why Flemer has been able to take Cal’s recent struggles in stride.

In spite of Flemer’s pitching, this year has been a struggle for the Bears. At 27-24 heading into the final weekend of the season, it will take another miracle for the squad to advance to regionals, let alone a trip to Omaha.

Flemer acknowledges the season has been a disappointment. But the changed chemistry on the squad has made the Bears’ difficulties more bearable.

“If I had an ERA that was 21.00 and I was 11-0, I’d be the happiest person in the world,” Flemer says. “I need the nine guys that are in the lineup every day. Everyone’s success is built around the guy next to him.”

Baseball is a game of numbers, yet Flemer isn’t driven by strikeouts or earned runs. He’s driven by the initials on his cap, the reminder that life is judged by much more than stats. It is remarkable for a player whose identity is so closely tied to the sport to recognize the game’s limitations in defining a person’s character.

“Being able to say I have a successful life is being a good friend, a good parent, a good coworker, a teammate,” he says. “Just to say that I was a good overall person is what my goal is at the end of the day. And if I can do that each day, then hopefully I’ll have a really successful life.”