An article in the Concord (New Hampshire) Monitor said of catcher Matt Tupman, “He once played with a roaring fire inside, fueled by a hardboiled youth that created a chip on his shoulder the size of second base. That fire made for hustle on the field, but led him to challenge authority off it.”1
The young catcher was born to Lesa Tupman and Billie H. Tupman Jr. in Concord on November 25, 1979. Both parents were Massachusetts natives and met while both were living in Gloucester. In 1978 Billie Tupman took a position at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men and worked for eight years as a corrections officer. “We both loved New Hampshire and wanted to move here,” Lesa Tupman said from Concord in 2019.2 They raised three children — Matt, Stephen, and Garrett. A year or so after Matt was born, Lesa Tupman began working in medical offices. Billie Tupman began work as a background investigator for the Human Resources department of Fidelity Investments, commuting to Boston for about a dozen years from Concord.
“When I was younger,” Tupman said in a November 2019 interview, “my parents just kind of had me play. My dad always loved baseball. My dad was not an athlete, but he always loved baseball. Had he been alive when sabermetrics were coming out, he probably would have loved that. He was a statistical person. He used to tell me the stats of all the old players. He was born in 1949, so the Seventies and Eighties … He was a Yankees fan. He loved all those guys.”3
Tupman threw right-handed and batted from the left side. “My dad claimed he taught me. He said I picked up the bat right-handed and he taught me to hit left-handed. Even though he was a Yankees fan, he still wanted me to swing the bat like the Splendid Splinter. That’s what he liked to say.”
“I never tried to hit righty. I really couldn’t hit live pitching righty.”
During his high-school years, Matt’s father battled alcoholism and it led to a broken relationship between them. After Matt had been drafted and entered the Kansas City Royals’ minor-league system, though, his father spent considerable time in Spokane in 2002 and Burlington, Iowa, in 2003. “We had patched things up by then,” Matt said. “I learned a lot about him, that he was sick. But once I got drafted, he was so proud.”4 Unfortunately, his father was also a heavy smoker and he suffered a seizure from a brain tumor in Burlington, a metastatis from lung cancer. He returned to New Hampshire, dying on October 1, 2003. Lesa recalled with fondness a moment near the end of her husband’s life. “When I was told by the medical staff Billie was almost out of time I called Matt home and when he walked into the hospital room his father looked at me then back at Matt and said, ‘Oh shit. I must be sicker than I thought. You’re not supposed to be home from baseball yet!’ He always had a sense of humor, right to the very end.”5
Recommended by scout Steve Connelly, Matt was drafted by the Royals in the ninth round of the June 2002 amateur draft, the 258th pick overall in that year’s draft.6 After his 2001 season with UMass Lowell, Baseball America named Tupman “the ninth best pro prospect in the New England Collegiate League.”7 Scouts had their eyes on him. A Lowell Sun story in mid-April reported 16 major-league scouts at the April 17 game.8 The UML River Hawks won the Northeast-10 championship. On May 10, hitting .350 with five homers and 39 RBIs, he was named first team All Northeast 10 Conference, along with fellow UML players Dave Williamson and Allen Mottram.9 He went to the College World Series both in 2001 and 2002.
Looking back on it, Lowell coach Jim Stone was amused to remember that he had tried to dissuade Tupman from transferring to UML from Plymouth State. He’d been all-conference there, but “I wanted to play in a better program,” Tupman said. “We were happy with our catching situation,” Stone said. “That’s why when Matt came here, he didn’t get the starting job right away.”10 In 2002 he was named to the Division Two All-American second team. The River Hawks played in the NCAA Division Two World Series.
If Matt was selected in a high-enough round during the June draft, he was prepared to forgo his senior year and go professional. As noted, he was picked in the ninth round. Dave Williamson was selected in the seventh round by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Once signed, Matt left on June 13 for Spokane to play for the Spokane Indians in the low-A short-season Northwest League. “They’ve indicated that I’ll be the No. 1 catcher, that it will be my spot to lose,” he said, admitting, “Coming out of Concord, I would have signed for just a plane ticket. They gave me more than I ever dreamed of. I’m living a dream right now.”11
In 51 games and 201 plate appearances, Tupman drove in 23 runs while hitting for a .271 average and a very good .364 on-base percentage. He was charged with only three errors in 348 chances.
His 2003 season was spent in Iowa, playing for the Class-A Midwest League’s Burlington Bees. In 81 games, he struggled more at the plate, hitting .223 (.288 OBP) with 38 RBIs. His fielding was down a bit, too, but he still finished a .984 fielding percentage.
Matt enjoyed a very supportive family. His mother, Lesa, noted that he was the first-born son on both sides of the family. His aunts Suzan and Marylou and his uncle Dickie traveled as a group to Delaware to watch him play with the Burlington Bees. Suzan and Dickie, and Marylou and her husband, Gussie, and a couple of cousins traveled to Las Vegas. “I went to almost every spring training. We all traveled all over hell to watch him play.”12
After joining the Royals early in spring training in 2004, Tupman moved one more rung up the ladder, to high Class A, catching for Carolina League’s Wilmington Blue Rocks in Delaware. He played in 108 games. His fielding percentage went back up to .990, and he hit an even .300 (.361 OBP) with 35 RBIs. In 2004 Baseball America named him the best defensive catcher in the Royals organization.13
In 2005 Tupman was promoted to Double A. He was based in Kansas and played in 109 games for the Wichita Wranglers (Texas League). He hit .263 (.355 OBP) with 32 RBIs. He was invited to join the major-league team after Wichita’s season was done, but was never actually added to the roster. “I was brought up in 2005 as the third catcher and traveled with the team the entire month of September. But Allard Baird didn’t want to activate me.” Not adding him to the roster extended the time the Royals could keep him under team control.
That fall, he played in the Arizona Fall League.
In 2006 Tupman, now age 26, enjoyed spring training with the big-league club but started the season with the Wranglers once more, playing in 73 games through July 11. He played in the Texas League All-Star Game, coming to the plate twice, with a base on balls and a double to show for it.14 He hit .305 that year with a very strong .425 on-base percentage, and earned himself another promotion, this time to the Triple-A Omaha Royals of the Pacific Coast League. He got into 21 games and hit .247 (.321 OBP), his first Triple-A hit breaking up a no-hitter in the sixth inning.15 He drove in four runs for Omaha.
In August 2006 Tupman was named to the USA Baseball roster for the Olympic Qualifying Team.16 The Royals gave him the time off to play for coach Davey Johnson, and the team won the gold medal in Havana, qualifying to play in the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008. Kurt Suzuki and Jarrod Saltalamacchia were the two other catchers on Team USA; Suzuki was his roommate. Tupman appeared in three games, and was 1-for-3 with a single against the Dominican Republic. Early in the 2008 season, he was with the Kansas City Royals; he did not go to Beijing.
Tupman established himself as a solid Triple-A ballplayer in 2007, spending the whole season with Omaha. Appearing in 86 games, he hit .281 (.361 OBP) with 32 RBIs.
That winter, he played baseball in the Dominican Republic for the Tigres del Licey. He saw action in 36 games and hit .293 (.322 OBP). He played in the Caribbean Series and hit .364 in the six games, collecting two hits in the final championship game when Licey beat Aguilas, 8-2. Playing in the Dominican Winter League had paid off in terms of catching the eye of Royals GM Dayton Moore. After the season, Moore had talked about Tupman: “I think any time a player commits to go to winter ball and especially stays there the whole time it shows an intense desire to get better. … It’s certainly enhanced Matt Tupman’s value as a baseball player to our organization.”17
For his part, Tupman said that people play winter ball for a number of reasons. “This would have been my sixth (full) year, so I would have been a (minor-league) free agent. I’m not a big name, so I needed to market myself. As it turned out, I got noticed by the team I was playing for all along.”18 He added, about having been added to the major-league roster, “How can I not be excited? This is a lifelong dream. This is everything I’ve ever wanted. This is why I was in the weight room every day at UMass Lowell.”
In December 2007, he married Addie Vega, his high-school sweetheart. They had two children, Gwendolyn and Pippa. They later divorced.
In 2008 Tupman opened the season on the Royals’ major-league roster, serving as backup catcher to John Buck, while regular backup Miguel Olivo served a four-game suspension for his part in a late 2007 brawl with the New York Mets. “If that happens, so be it,” he said. “That will be cool if I make it. It is my dream to make it here. I feel like I’ve been on the cusp for maybe a year or two now.”19
Though on the roster and with the team, Tupman saw no game action. After Olivo served his suspension, Tupman was optioned to Omaha again near the end of the first week of April.
He was called back to the big leagues after John Buck’s wife gave birth to twin boys on May 15, some 12 weeks prematurely, and Buck was given emergency leave to join her. This time he got into a game, on Sunday afternoon, May 18, at Dolphin Stadium in Miami. Zack Greinke was pitching for the Royals and Burke Badenhop for the Marlins. At the end of eight innings, both pitchers were gone. The score stood 9-3 in favor of Kansas City. Kevin Gregg was the sixth pitcher of the day for the Marlins; he was asked to work the ninth.
First up was Mark Teahen, who worked the count to 3-and-2, then popped up to the shortstop. Royals manager Trey Hillman then asked Tupman to pinch-hit for pitcher Jimmy Gobble. Tupman took the first pitch for a ball, then swung at the second and lined it into short right field for a clean single. The next batter was catcher Miguel Olivo, who hit into a double play; he lined a 1-and-1 pitch to the second baseman, Dan Uggla, who threw the ball to first; Tupman couldn’t get back to the bag in time and was out.
Tupman replaced Olivo as catcher in the bottom of the ninth. Working for the Royals in the ninth was right-handed reliever Yasuhiko Yabuta. A groundout to second, a walk, and a 6-4-3 double play brought the game to an end.
The very next day, Buck was reactivated and Tupman was optioned back to Omaha, but not before the Royals had traveled from Miami to Boston, where the Red Sox were due to host Kansas City. His wife, daughter, and a family friend had all been given tickets to the game, hopefully to see Matt play. Learning that he had been optioned, with Buck back on the team, he sat in the seats at Fenway — and watched Red Sox lefty Jon Lester no-hit the team he’d played with just the day before.
Tupman might never have had that one at-bat had it not been for Jose Guillen. The Royals left fielder knew that Tupman was about to be optioned and interceded with manager Hillman to try to get his friend Matt at least one at-bat before he was sent back to Triple A. Tupman told Sam Gardner of Fox Sports, “Jose was one of the team leaders at that point in time, and he knew that I should have gotten an at-bat, but in all honesty, for some reason, the manager didn’t like me.” (Tupman had previously clashed with Double-A manager Frank White, as well.) “I was called up in a time of necessity, so he was reluctant to really, actually, play me.”
“But Jose, knowing I could play and knowing what I did all winter long, knowing it was the right thing to do — we were blowing them out — he had Miguel, who was the starting catcher that day, basically go to Hillman and say, ‘Look man, I feel sick, it’s a hot day in Miami,’ and he basically took himself out of the game so that I could get one at-bat.”20
Arguably, Tupman should perhaps have started the May 18 game. Zack Greinke was pitching and the two knew each other well. They had both spent much of the 2006 season together as batterymates in Wichita. “I played with Zach in 2002 when we were drafted together. I knew Zach well. He was pitching — he’s easy to catch, too, the guy hits every spot. But it ended up, I’m not catching that day. It was just one of those things.”
It was fortunate that Guillen spoke up. Though one couldn’t know it at the time, as it happens, Tupman’s major-league career was over. He had seen two pitches and had himself a 1.000 career batting average.21
“Everybody has a story,” Tupman said in 2019, “but statistically if you look at the time period when I was in the Royals’ minor leagues, I was one of the better catchers. I knew I was a backup catcher. I wasn’t the starting catcher at the major-league level. I didn’t hit for enough power. I easily could have hit .250 in the major leagues. Easily. But I had no power, so I was a backup guy. I was the best defensive catcher in the organization from like ’04 to ’09. I wasn’t too bad with the bat, either. I didn’t hit for power, but I walked more than I struck out. I was a good hitter. I just didn’t crush the ball.”22 He admitted to still feeling a sense of bitterness — fading in time — that he didn’t get more of a chance.
“The manager of the Royals at that time [Trey Hillman], he did not like me. I don’t really know what happened.” They were like polar opposites, Hillman “a God-fearing Texas guy” and Tupman from New England. Tupman recalled a time in spring training. “I was in the bullpen in and John Buck was at bat. I didn’t sprint from the bullpen to the dugout. I was kind of walking along the warning track, watching John hit. I came into the dugout and put my helmet on — if he got on, I was going to go pinch-run. Later, they called me into the office and were telling me that I didn’t hustle — ‘This is just wrong. …’ I’m looking at them, and I’m thinking, ‘Do you know how the f— I got to spring training in major-league camp? It’s because I am Mr. Hustle.’ He just didn’t like me.”
“I never saw right with him. The previous manager, Buddy Bell? Loved him. Buddy was my kind of guy. Hard-nosed, didn’t-mess-with-him kind of guy. And the previous manager before that — Tony Peña. I loved Tony. I went to the Dominican Republic for three straight offseasons. Tony was the manager with the Aguilas. I played for Licey. They go crazy down there for baseball. It’s awesome. I fell in love with their culture. And Tony Peña would make it a point to come over to the other dugout and say hi to me. And then I meet Trey Hillman, and it was pretty much the end after Trey.”
With Omaha, he hit four home runs — not being a power hitter, those four homers constituted a career high.
After the 2008 season, his contract was assigned outright to Omaha.
Tupman got to play 59 games in 2009, 21 with Omaha (.261, 7 RBIs) but was released by the Royals. His last game with Omaha was June 17. A few weeks later, he signed on with the Arizona Diamondbacks and played 38 more games in 2009, starting on July 6 playing Double-A ball for the Southern League’s Mobile BayBears (.254, 19 RBIs).
He returned to the Dominican Republic to play winter ball once more, but this time he hit only .229 in 38 games.
In December 2009 Major League Baseball announced that four players had been suspended: Jefferson Segundo (St. Louis Cardinals), Joel Tamares (Florida Marlins), Daniel Vasquez (Arizona Diamondbacks), and free agent Matt Tupman. Each was given a 50-game suspension “after each violated the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.”23
“We were down there partying,” Tupman said. “I really don’t have an excuse for it.” His young daughter, Gwen, was in art class, shown a copy of a newspaper story talking about her father. Matt had to explain. Ray Duckler wrote, “The rugged catcher with the chip on his shoulder who had always followed his own path, who had gone toe-to-toe with Frank White, who had never allowed anyone to see his vulnerable side, was humbled by a little girl.”
“His little girl.”
“‘I cried,’ Tupman said. ‘It was harder than telling anyone here.’”24
He was under contact to the Mets, but the Mets voided the contract and Tupman sat out the entire 2010 season. He lost more than 50 games. “Obviously I messed up,” Tupman said, but due to a technicality — if you are not on an active roster, you cannot serve your suspension. He lost the whole year, and went into independent-league baseball before the commissioner’s office responded to his appeal midway through the 2011 season and granted him active status again. But no team called.
In 2011 Tupman played independent baseball in Pennsylvania for the Atlantic League’s Lancaster Barnstormers. He hit .268 with four home runs over the course of 57 games. He committed only one error in 317 chances.
He was, however, only making about $250 per week, not enough to support a growing family. At age 32, he stopped playing baseball.
He had started to find other work in 2010, beginning work at the Concord Sports Center, where his mother, Lesa, was office manager.
He coached the Concord Cannons that year; they put up a 30-7 record. They were a young team, mostly 11 years old. Another team he coached — Concord’s Post 21 American Legion team — won the 2013 state title in Legion ball.
“It’s what I live for,” he told the Concord Monitor at the time. “I’m so excited for this. I love coaching baseball now. It has come full circle.”25
He coached Legion ball from 2013 to 2015. He was giving baseball lessons, working seven evenings a week, and on weekends, too, while his wife worked days. He stayed home to provide day care for their kids, and then the two switched off. This understandably left him burned out.
He took a job for a stretch installing glass for Portland Glass Company, mostly auto glass. “I did that for a while, with the personal training and the baseball lessons. Then I decided to just do the personal training full time.”
He worked some at Concord Sports Center, but, as he explained, “I’m a full-time personal trainer. I’m a smaller guy, so lifting weights and all that stuff was something that I did my whole career. I’m employed by a company called Forty-three Degrees North. They’re new. They’ve only been around for about 18 months.”26
“Everyone has their tale,” he added of his perfect career batting average. “A fan might see 1-for-1, 1.000, but there’s so much more that goes into it. It was 28 years of hard work put into that single.”27
On the brink of turning 40, Tupman said, “I think the bitterness has left now. I just kind of used that word to describe how I left back then. It’s less now than it was. It’s just frustrating. It’s a hard thing to sit there and be passed up constantly. You do well, and your management is saying, ‘We love what you do. Don’t change a thing’ — for six or seven or eight years straight. And then nothing. It just got mentally frustrating.”
“But looking back at it, I absolutely loved it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The friends I made, the memories I have, the cities that I visited, the food that I got to eat. It’s culture. Like going to Louisiana. Louisiana is the polar opposite of New Hampshire. You get to see all the different cultures. You get to meet foreign people. If I hadn’t played baseball, I wouldn’t have gotten to maybe 97 percent of the places I’ve been to. I’ve been to 45 of the 50 states. Cuba. The Caribbean. When I was younger I played on a travel team that went to Australia. All because of baseball.”28
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
1 Ray Duckler, “After Long Journey, Tupman Has Come Full Circle,” Concord (New Hampshire) Monitor, July 29, 2013.
2 Lesa Tupman email to author on November 12, 2019.
3 Author interview with Matt Tupman on November 11, 2019. Unless otherwise indicated, all direct quotations come from this interview.
4 Ray Duckler.
5 Lesa Tupman emails November 11 and 15, 2019.
6 His mother, Lesa, said, “I was working the day Matt was drafted, I left work and went to his apartment and he greeted me at the door all smiles as I yelled, ‘Matt, we got drafted!’” Lesa Tupman email, November 15, 2019.
7 “Outlook Sunny for UML Baseball Club,” Lowell (Massachusetts) Sun, March 19, 2002: 16.
8 Chaz Scoggins, “To Guns Again,” Lowell Sun, April 18, 2002: 17.
9 “UML Trio Headline Star Team,” Lowell Sun, May 13, 2002: 16.
10 David Pevear, “Nice Catch(er) for UMass Lowell Baseball Program,” Lowell Sun, May 23, 2002: 19.
11 “Tupman Latest to Sign Pro Contract,” Lowell Sun, June 12, 2002: 11.
12 Lesa Tupman email November 15, 2019.
13 Chaz Scoggins, “Tupman Gets Around,” Lowell Sun, September 21, 2006: 14.
14 Susan Denk, “Old-Timers Event Will Keep Going,” The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa), June 25, 2006: 58.
15 “Down on the Farm,” Nashua (New Hampshire) Telegraph, July 16, 2006: C3.
16 Susan Denk, “Hochevar Has Big Goals,” The Hawk Eye, August 21, 2006: 3B.
17 Associated Press, “Suspension Gives Tupman Chance with Royals,” Hays (Kansas) Daily News, February 17, 2008: 16; Associated Press, “Olivo’s Suspension Opens Door for Tupman,” Joplin (Missouri) Globe, February 17, 2008: 7D.
18 Dave Pevear, “Royalty: Tupman Close to a Major Accomplishment,” Lowell Sun, March 28, 2008: 17.
19 Associated Press, “Olivo’s Suspension Opens Door for Tupman.”
20 Sam Gardner, “One & Done: Matt Tupman’s Hit Made Him Feel Like a Royal Success,” FoxSports, July 28, 2015, at foxsports.com/mlb/story/kansas-city-royals-matt-tupman-s-hit-made-him-feel-like-a-royal-success-072815.
21 Tupman’s base hit can be seen at youtube.com/watch?v=e4Dsouc20vI.
22 Author interview. Through 2007, Tupman had relatively similar numbers in walks (222) and strikeouts (259)
23 “Transactions,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 5, 2009: 19.
24 Ray Duckler.
25 Ray Duckler.
27 Sam Gardner.
28 Author interview.