Matt Barker was on the cusp of achieving every high school baseball standout’s dream: getting a shot to play in the Major Leagues. But then the injuries started, followed by years of reckless partying, and eventually, the end of his promising baseball career. All the while, Barker was harboring a secret about his sexuality that he was even afraid to explore himself.
On this week’s “Level Playing Field,” Barker opens up to Randy Boose about his path towards personal acceptance, and just as importantly, mental peace. It was an arduous journey that took Barker through plenty of tribulations and three stints in college. There were plenty of dark times. It took Barker several years — and many setbacks — to get his life together.
“I was sick of the way I was living,” he explained. “I said, ‘Knock that shit off, Matt.’ I asked my sister and her husband for help, and they said, ‘absolutely.’ As soon as I woke up from there, I was feeling alive again, and thought, ‘Let’s go after some goals here. Let’s set some lofty goals. I don’t care how far of a reach it is. Let’s just aim and shoot and land where we land.’”
A high school standout, Barker hit over .500 during his junior season and went 9-0 as a pitcher for his Colorado high school. He threw a perfect game and was named county player of the year. Scouts projected he would be taken as high as the third round in MLB’s amateur draft. But then, Barker tore a labrum in his throwing shoulder. Even though he hit an astonishing .627 in his senior season, scouts weren’t interested in him if he couldn’t pitch. The Colorado Rockies selected Barker in the 46th round, but wanted him to attend college. That was the start of the downfall.
Barker played at Midland College — appropriately located in Midland, Texas — and says he instantly clashed with the head coach. The team rules were stringent, and Barker rebelled. “When we left Oklahoma and passed the border into Texas, this weird sense came over me. It wasn’t agreeing with me right away,” he said. “But we continued on, and I pretty much clashed with the coach’s ideals of what baseball is or what a baseball player is or should be. I completely disagreed with him.”
After withdrawing from Midland, Barker attended a private workout with the Rockies, who didn’t select him in the ensuing draft. He enrolled at Lamar Community College in Colorado, where he continued to drink and party heavily. After flaming out at Lamar, he took classes Otero Junior College in La Junta, Colorado. But that ended poorly, too, and Barker went home to work for his dad installing carpets.
He didn’t play baseball again for years.
“Baseball almost died for me in a way,” he said. “The biggest regret of my all of my college life was how Lamar went up going down. I felt like baseball was over and all of my real chances were gone at that point.”
Though Barker lost most of his 20s, he’s regained his zest for life, and coming out was a big part of that. Barker always suspected he was gay from the moment he was attracted to a young David Justice — the former MLB All-Star — but kept his feelings to himself. He never talked about being gay, and never even thought about it. Finally, tired of lying about hanging out with his then-boyfriend, Barker told his family the truth. They couldn’t have been more accepting, leading Barker to wonder why he waited so long.
“It was just silly,” he said. “I was like, ‘I’m going to tell them.’ When I did, my mom cried and she said, ‘I just want you to be happy.’ Dad was understanding. He said, ‘We still love you, kiddo.’ My brother was shocked, but he was just like, ‘If you’re happy, then I don’t care. It’s good.’ My sister, I was the most nervous to tell her, and she’s the most accepting. She’s like the coolest human being on the planet, my sister is. Especially if everyone met her and talked to her, you would be like, ‘Why in the world would you be afraid to tell her?’ It’s really that reason right there. You’re scared that maybe that’s like a veneer, or something.”
Today, Barker plays for the Denver Browns of the National Adult Baseball League (the games are streamed on Facebook Live), and he’s even attended Pride Night at Coors Field. He’s finally learned to love himself.
“Who you are adapts over time, but loving yourself is the important part,” he said. “You can do a lot of damage if you loathe yourself. I know that.”
Click here to check out this week’s edition of “Level Playing Field”. You can also subscribe to the show on Apple’s Podcast page as well as on Google Podcasts, and wherever you’ll find Outsports podcasts.
(Information in this article was also taken from the 2017 profile of Barker on “Purple Row,” SB Nation’s Rockies blog.)