By Rob Rains
Once the initial excitement of being traded to the Cardinals settled down last week, Matthew Liberatore’s thoughts drifted back to early last summer, and a telephone conversation with Nolan Gorman, his best friend.
Liberatore, a left-handed pitcher, and Gorman, a power-hitting third baseman, are among the best prospects in baseball and happen to have a unique bond. It began when they became teammates at the age of five on a coach-pitch team in Arizona.
The relationship grew over the years, connecting Liberatore and Gorman on and off the field. Each became a first-round draft pick following high school in 2018, Liberatore going to the Tampa Bay Rays as the 16th overall pick and Gorman being selected three spots later by the Cardinals.
Being in different organizations forced the two to communicate mostly through phone calls and text messages. As Gorman started last season in Peoria, Liberatore didn’t get to Bowling Green – also in the Midwest League – until early May.
“We called each other a couple of times during the week just to talk about guys we had seen pitching or hitting,” Liberatore said. “At the end of the conversation we both agreed about how cool it would be if we could be on the same team and instead of having to call each other every couple of days we could live together and sit down every night and compare notes. If I was pitching the next day he could help me prepare and I could help him prepare based on the pitchers.
“As soon as I got traded that conversation became crystal clear in my head again. ‘Wow, we just had that conversation less than a year ago and now it’s going to be a reality.’ It’s pretty crazy.”
Even though the two had talked about being teammates in pro baseball, and dreamed about how cool it would be to win a World Series together, until last week it remained only a dream. The trade has made it possible.
“I was shocked”
Liberatore first got a tip that something might be happening in a phone call from his agent but he did not have any details. While Liberatore was on the phone with his dad to also give him a heads up, an official with the Rays called.
“He basically said we’re making a trade today and you’re going to be part of it,” Liberatore said. “It was a little more personable, but that was the gist of the conversation.”
What wasn’t said, however, was where Liberatore was being traded. A few minutes later he started getting texts from friends congratulating him, and he started writing back. “I know I got traded but who to?” Then Liberatore saw a post on Twitter from ESPN’s Jeff Passan that he was going to the Cardinals.
“I was a little shocked,” he said. “It all happened so suddenly and I was not expecting it. I am excited to get to play with Nolan again and he’s told me nothing but good things about the Cardinals organization. I am super excited to see how the organization functions and see where I can take my career.”
Somebody who expects a lot from the 20-year-old Liberatore is one of the same people who knows how he has become such a highly ranked prospect. Jon Huizinga, a former professional pitcher himself, has worked with Liberatore since he was 11 years old.
“People always ask me, ‘When did you know he was going to be a guy?’” Huizinga said. “The answer is literally the first time he came to my house for a lesson. I had a jump rope program that I put guys through. He struggled with it, like most of them do the first time.
“He came back a week later and had his own jump rope and just tore through the workout. He clearly had memorized it and went home and worked on it. The first thing I asked his dad was, ‘Does he have a twin brother? There’s no way this is the same kid.’ He told me that on the way home Matthew had made him stop and buy a jump rope and that he wouldn’t come in to eat his dinner until he got through the workout.”
Huizinga was to learn over the next few years that this was just one example of Liberatore’s dedication to wanting to be the best he could be.
“When a coach talks about working on flaws and developing strengths, a lot of guys take it as a negative that they have stuff to work on,” Huizinga said. “Matthew has always thrived on, ‘What can I go home and work on.’ … Anytime he struggled it just made him better. … I’ve been doing lessons for more than 20 years and you can always tell if a guy goes home and works on stuff. He was always that kid.”
Huizinga also began working with Liberatore about how to focus on the mound with a technique he calls “breathing on a rock.”
“He had me sit down on the back of the mound and breath on a rock,” Liberatore said. “The point was to visualize my breath coming up and down off the rock. It’s all about being composed and focused on the mound. That’s where it started, and it really helped my career take off. It’s been instrumental in my development as a pitcher and as a person.”
Liberatore’s competitiveness, he believes, is one of the qualities he shares with Gorman and is at least partially responsible for how close they have become over the years.
They grew up about a 10-minute drive from each other and were about 9 or 10 when they began spending weekends at each other’s house.
“Whiffle ball, frisbee, football, kick ball, riding scooters or skateboards and bikes,” Liberatore said of the activities the two shared. “We really just hit it off and have been friends ever since. We were both super, super competitive. It wasn’t like we could do something just for fun. We both had to be the best at it. That translated into pushing each other.
“Nolan is a little more reserved than I am. We have a similar sense of humor. We both think the same way. I’m just a little more talkative.”
About the only time the two were separated before becoming professionals was in high school. Despite living so close together, the boundary for Mountain Ridge High School and Sandra Day O’Connor High School cut between the two houses.
That led to them playing against each other in the biggest high school baseball rivalry in Arizona. With the 2018 baseball draft approaching their senior years, about 80 pro scouts and executives were in the crowd on April 19, when Liberatore pitched Mountain Ridge to a 2-1 victory. He held Gorman hitless in three at-bats.
One of those scouts in attendance was Randy Flores, the Cardinals’ scouting director.
“Both had been under the spotlight for a long time,” Flores said. “What I was impressed with was that with the entire scouting world there, the stage wasn’t too big for them. It was just another game for them.”
At the time, most draft experts were predicting that both Liberatore and Gorman would be among the top 10 picks. Two months later when the Cardinals drafted Gorman, Flores admitted the Cardinals were surprised he was still on the board.
“If either of them would have been there we would have been surprised,” Flores said. “We wound up being surprised.”
Less than two years later, the Cardinals now have both of those players in their organization – which might be an even bigger, and more pleasant, surprise.
“We are all excited,” Flores said.
Making hitters “look stupid”
The Cardinals had a chance to get extra information on both Liberatore and Gorman before the draft during the summer of 2017 when they were teammates on USA Baseball’s under 18 national team. The pitching coach on that team was Ricky Meinhold, who also worked as a scout for the Cardinals at the time.
“His personality was that he wanted to make hitters look stupid,” Meinhold said of Libertore. “He was thinking about the then and now. He wanted to be on Twitter because he got a guy to swing and miss on something disgusting. I didn’t feel that was good for him. We had some ‘come to Jesus’ meetings that I think were good and beneficial for both of us.”
Meinhold turned in glowing reviews of Liberatore in his pre-draft reports, information the Cardinals fell back on when they made last week’s trade that sent Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena to the Rays. The trade actually was a bittersweet moment for Meinhold, who left the Cardinals a couple of weeks ago to become a minor-league pitching coordinator for the Mets.
“Selfishly I was kind of ticked at myself because I’m not a Cardinal anymore and won’t get to work with him again,” Meinhold said. “That would have been fun. I’m super happy for him because I think he is going to do really well in St. Louis. I texted all of the pitching guys in the organization and said, ‘You’re going to love working with him because there is a lot to work with.’
“My perspective is that this could be like a J.D. Drew-Adam Wainwright trade where he could be a future kind of icon in the organization if all goes well. There’s still a lot of time to answer that.”
Partially because of his work with Meinhold, and also with Huizinga, Liberatore has learned that he doesn’t always have to throw a baseball as hard as he can to get a hitter out. Make no mistake, however, that change has not affected his desire to compete and become as successful as he can be.
“I’m trying to be the biggest, baddest dude out there when I take the mound,” Liberatore said. “If you get in my way or step in that box, you are not going to get on base. You are not going to beat me. The whole ‘looking silly’ thing was more of a mentality that I don’t want you to feel like you stand a chance against me when you step in the box.
“That holds true to this day. I don’t feel like there is anybody who steps into the box that I can’t compete against. That’s just the mentality you have to have if you are going to play at a very high level. Whether it’s true or not I don’t actually know but that’s the mentality I carry with me onto the field.”
The pitcher Liberatore most tries to identify with when he is on the mound is Aroldis Chapman. He also brings up the names Max Scherzer and Marcus Stroman.
“They have passion and intensity and enthusiasm,” he said. “They bring it to the mound every time they go out there. Chapman’s demeanor is kind of who I’ve modeled my poise after about being the biggest, baddest dude out there. I don’t think anybody looks forward to stepping in the box against any of those guys.
“If I can beat them (hitters) in between the ears before they even step in the box it’s going to make it that much easier for me to get them out.”
Huizinga, for one, is not going to bet against Libertore.
“His mindset is what I think is going to allow him to continue to deal with adversity,” he said. “No matter how good you are there are going to be some days and some times when hitters are going to square them up on you.
“The big moments are where he continues to rise time and time again. Most of that is in his mind, he’s already done it. Mentally he’s rehearsed it. He’s out there almost on autopilot.”
Ready for the weekend
Liberatore had never been to St. Louis before he was asked to come to town for this weekend’s Winter Warmup and to go on one of the caravans, making stops on Friday in Champaign and Peoria and on Saturday in Bloomington, Ill.
He will be signing autographs for two hours on Sunday and his session, at $10 per autograph, sold out quickly. It’s another example of what has happened since the trade.
Gorman also will be on the same caravan, and signing autographs in the same hotel ballroom on Sunday.
“The story just keeps getting crazier and crazier,” Libertore said. “The fans have already given me such a warm welcome. I gained over 2,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter each and had almost 10,000 likes on my tweet. I’ve never seen anything like it. I felt super happy and overwhelmed.
“I was talking with my dad the day the trade happened. I think he put it best. He just said our story keeps getting more and more surreal every day. It’s pretty cool to talk about us growing up together; committing to the same college (Arizona) and then getting picked three picks apart in the draft.
“Fast forward a year and a half later and we’re about to play for the same team again in pro ball. Hopefully we will have an opportunity to go win a World Series together.
“We always talked about it, like any little kid. Every baseball player has that dream.”
Usually, however, they don’t get a chance to live out that dream with their best friend.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos of Team USA courtesy of USA Baseball