ORONO – Growing up in Burlington, Ontario, Matt McGraw was willing to do anything to further his baseball career in the United States.
Coming from a country where hockey is king, that is a difficult challenge, but McGraw fulfilled his dream, earning a scholarship to play at the University of Maine.
“When you’re a Canadian baseball player, all you want to do is go to the States and play,” McGraw explained. “That’s your ticket. There are no athletic scholarships in Canada.”
The senior captain has been a four-year mainstay for the Black Bears. Today, he leads coach Steve Trimper’s team into the 5 p.m. opener of a critical four-game America East series against Vermont at Mahaney Diamond.
McGraw said it can be difficult to get noticed playing north of the border. He caught his break playing in Florida as a member of Team Ontario, and has taken advantage.
McGraw is batting .302 with three home runs and 24 runs batted in. The 5-foot-11, 175-pounder leads UMaine in runs scored (29), tops America East in triples (5) and has stolen 12 bases in 13 attempts.
His career has been characterized by hard work and unselfishness. “He’s what I call a quiet competitor,” Trimper said. “He is one of the best (No.) 2 hitters I’ve ever coached.”
McGraw is a catcher, first and foremost. However, injuries and circumstances have forced him to utilize his skills at a handful of positions.
This season, McGraw has started all 39 games – 24 in left field, 14 behind the plate and one at second base.
“I think that shows his athletic ability,” Trimper said. “He’s a very versatile player and he works hard at everything. He’ll do whatever it takes to help the team and he wants to win.”
In four years, McGraw has played everywhere except pitcher, shortstop, center field and first base.
“I feel like I’ve sort of adapted to whatever was necessary. I’m like the chameleon of the team,” McGraw said with a wry smile.
In 2006, preseason surgery to repair a torn labrum rendered McGraw unable to catch, or throw. He spent most of the season as the designated hitter and earned All-America East second-team honors.
Regardless of the role, “I’m a senior and I play as hard as I can every day,” he said.
McGraw revels in the psychological dynamics of the pitcher-hitter confrontation and enjoys working with pitchers.
“When I’m catching, I feel like I have more involvement in the outcome of the game,” he said.
McGraw’s passion for learning everything he can about baseball translates into the classroom. The business administration major is on pace to graduate with a 3.76 grade point average.
Last winter, McGraw received the Dean Smith Award, which is given to the university’s outstanding student-athlete.
“He’s a superstar kid off the field and in the classroom,” Trimper said. “He goes at his work, whether classroom work or his baseball work, in the same manner.”
McGraw credits his parents, Karin and Michael, with teaching him the importance of doing well in school and being willing to put forth the necessary effort.
McGraw’s analytical nature has made it hard for him to deal with the frequency of failure in baseball. Discussions with coach Casey Weathers last summer during a stint in the Alaska Baseball League helped him put things into perspective.
“I expect to get a hit every time. I expect to do my job,” said McGraw, whose role as UMaine’s No. 2 batter often is to take pitches and give the leadoff hitter a chance to steal, or to advance the runner.
“If you take care of the little things you have control over and you work as hard as you can on those, then the rest will fall in line,” said McGraw, who hopes he and former UMaine teammates Aaron Izaryk and Scott Robinson have represented Canada well.
“I think we’ve all made the best of it, because we knew how important it was to us,” he said. “Hopefully, that opens the door to more Canadians.”