Tigers game brings back memories for Diaz

Tigers game brings back memories for Diaz

LAKELAND, Fla. -- When Matt Diaz looked into the stands at Joker Marchant Stadium on Monday afternoon, he saw his 7-year-old nephew, J.D. Diaz, enjoying the same experience he had when his father would excuse him from school and travel across town to see the Tigers play.

Growing up the son of the Tigers' Spring Training chaplain, Diaz vividly remembers how special he felt during those days when he and his brothers were excused from school in time to watch Cecil Fielder display his mighty swing, or to simply have the opportunity to once again bond with the likes of Travis Fryman, Frank Tanana or his godfather Matt Nokes.

"I got to be friends with their families, babysit their kids and just see how to live as a professional baseball player," Diaz said. "I never dreamed that I'd actually get to do it. But it was cool to see that they were real people and not just superstars."

While drawing a pair of walks and going hitless in his lone at-bats during the 12-4 win he and his Braves teammates claimed over the Tigers on Monday, Diaz once again found himself as one of those big leaguers that he once viewed as being larger-than-life.

At the same time, the Braves' 32-year-old outfielder found himself drawing memories of former Tigers strength coach Brad Andress teaching him how to lift weights, and of those days when he would return to this Spring Training setting to watch the disappointed Minor Leaguers play the day after the big leaguers headed north to prepare for Opening Day.

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"Those were some of my favorite games because there would be like 12 people in the stands," Diaz said. "So the players would all come over and talk. They were all miserable, but I thought it was great."

As Diaz prepares for his fifth season with the Braves, he finds himself relieved that he has distanced himself from the miserable 2008 season, during which he got off to a slow start offensively and then essentially missed each of the last four months because of a left knee injury.

With doubts about his future creeping in his head, Diaz returned last year and played in a career-high 109 games. More importantly, he hit .313, collected a career-high 13 homers and proved he could handle the everyday responsibilities he gained during the latter portion of the season.

"To be able to come in and contribute in a major way last year, it just lifted me right up," Diaz said. "It reminded me how much fun this game is and that I want to do this as long as I can."

When Diaz joined the Braves before the start of the 2006 season, he was viewed as a journeyman Minor Leaguer who feasted on left-handed pitchers. While he has continued to destroy southpaws, he's also compiled a .316 batting average over the past five seasons at the expense of right-handed pitchers.

This year, he wants to pick up where he left off last year, and more importantly, experience the October excitement that so many of his predecessors in Atlanta realized on an annual basis.

"I never set individual goals," Diaz said. "When I got traded to the Braves, I was like, 'Man, if I can just make that big league club, I know that I'm going to be in the playoffs.' I haven't done that yet. So I will do whatever I can possibly do to do that with this group of guys."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.