Clark Kent had a phone booth.
All Todd Mathison needs is a grayish-blue Dodge Stratus.
After spending most of September 7 driving around Minnesota to meet clients, the 24-year-old financial planner returned to his office about 4 p.m. at Fringe Benefits Design, a Bloomington company that sells and services retirement plans. Within 30 minutes, he was back in his Stratus for the 20-mile drive to his new office, Midway Stadium, home of the St. Paul Saints. By 5:15 p.m., Mathison was in the parking lot, starting his transformation from businessman-by-day to starting pitcher-by-night. He shed his suit and tie for jeans and a T-shirt, ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and was in the Saints’ locker room by 5:20 p.m.
He was slated to start the first game of the American Association Championship Series against the Grand Prairie AirHogs later that night.
Then, in what was only the latest scene in the screenplay that is Mathison’s on-again-off-again baseball career, the weekday warrior out-dueled Jason Jennings — the same Jason Jennings who won the National League rookie of the year in 2002 as a pitcher for the Colorado Rockies — to a 7-1 win.
And that wasn’t the end of the story.
*** Three times Mathison has seen his baseball career revived from near-death and all three times he proved his right arm wasn’t ready to retire.
Example A: After pitching the 2010 season for the Saints, Mathison was let go after an up-and-down summer.
“Numbers are numbers,” Mathison says. “That was the end of my professional career.”
But while at a church function a month ago dining on shish kabobs, he got a call from Saints pitching coach Jason Verdugo. The team was in need of an arm for the stretch run and Verdugo gave Mathison two hours to decide. Mathison called his boss at Fringe Benefit Design, who also happens to be a former baseball player, and said he could handle pitching if the Saints worked around his schedule. Later that night, the shish kabob scent still on his fingers, Mathison drove to Midway Stadium and signed a contract. When Mathison re-joined the Saints — an independent team about the level of Double-A — they were tied for the wild-card berth. They won the final game of the regular season to make the playoffs and won their first series against Winnipeg thanks in part to a game Mathison started and the team won in extra innings.
Example B: After turning down a chance to play shortstop at the University of Minnesota, Mathison chose to play at nearby St. Olaf College because the school offered the chance to play baseball and football. A high school infielder, he began to pitch in earnest during fall baseball before his freshman season. Mathison finished his first season 9-0 with an ERA less than two and was named an All-American. He did that while playing shortstop every other game.
“After my freshman year, I still considered myself an infielder,” Mathison says.
He started his sophomore campaign 6-0 before straining an elbow ligament. Knowing an MRI would bench him for the season, Mathison convinced the St. Olaf coaching staff to let him play the rest of the year at first base and DH. When he had the MRI, sure enough the ligament was torn and Mathison was out for the summer (but his hitting prowess earned him the hitting MVP of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference). His college career was capped by going 7-4 and leading St. Olaf to within one game of the Division III World Series.
Then it was off to Zambia, Africa, for a summer project with Campus Crusade for Christ.
“In my mind, thought this was end of my baseball career,” Mathison says. “I was OK with that.”
Example C: When he returned to the states during the summer of 2009, Mathison was playing town ball for the Dundas Dukes and the opposing coach in one of his games happened to be Verdugo. He offered Mathison a tryout with the Saints and eventually signed the 6-foot, 190-pound pitcher for the rest of the 2009 season.
Mathison returned to the Saints in 2010 but was released June 28. And for the next year he worked as a financial planner because, yes, he thought his baseball career was over.
Now, in 2011, he’s still touching 91 mph. And he’s loving it.
“Throwing as hard as I’ve ever thrown,” Mathison says. “There are 35-year-olds who still have hopes. I still have hopes and I always will. If someone called and said they needed a big league starter, I’d say, ‘Yes.’”.
But first there was the matter of the championship series against the AirHogs. Mathison won the first game but the series went to a deciding Game 5. Once again, the 401K salesman would have to go against Jennings.
Mathison pitched well, but not as well as the former MLB star. The Saints lost, 8-5, after Mathison pitched five innings and gave up three earned runs.
Tuesday morning, Mathison sat in the Denver airport, thinking about the whirlwind month.
“It was an absolute blast,” he says. “Great team. It’s just hard to win a title.”
So what now?
“Get back to the office,” Mathison says. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”
And so Clark Kent, suitcase in hand, gets ready to board a flight for his old life and his grayish-blue Dodge Stratus. Again.
Eric Adelson contributed reporting for this story.