Pender ready for his second act

Originally Published: April 13, 2010
By Frederick McKindra | Special to Page 2

Former major league baseball pitcher Matthew Pender began 2002 smiling for flashbulbs in a Detroit Tigers jersey. A third-round pick in that year's draft, he still owns several Bowman Draft Pick cards memorializing himself.

But after suffering a career-ending shoulder injury, he swapped minor league pitching mounds for the Manhattan skyline. Six years on, he's still posing for photos. He's again assumed the role of the leading man. Only this time, he plays Joey Edwards in "When Joey Married Bobby," a stage comedy at the Times Square Arts Center's Roy Arias Theatre.

Undrafted out of Houston County High School near Warner Robins, Ga., Pender landed at Middle Georgia College with little more than a 5:30 a.m., six-days-a-week resolve, an 85 mph fastball and a dorm waiver. His life became a sports movie training montage. He even remembers his lines. "My outlook was that no one could work as hard as I could. If I could do that, then I was going to succeed." Raising his fastball to 93 mph, he earned mid-40-round draft selections from the St. Louis Cardinals twice. Both invitations were declined. After transferring to nearby Kennesaw State, the budding ingénue received a nod from the Tigers' organization, which selected him in the third round of 2002.

Pender followed a fairy-tale ascent to the majors, pitching for the High A affiliate Lakeland Tigers, throwing a ball that topped out at 96 mph. In 2004, when the zip of his fastball dropped to 86 mph, it sounded like Freddy Krueger scraping his knives against the hallway wall. Acclaimed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews identified the culprit: tears in Pender's rotator cuff, biceps tendon and labrum.

"My father put a baseball in my hand when I was 3 years old. Whenever you spend your entire life perfecting one craft, to get to a point where it's all taken away from you overnight is really hard. I was at my peak, I was at the tip of the mountain and fell all the way down to the gully within a matter of seconds."

He sat in that gully, the sofa in his parents' den in Kathleen, Ga., until his sister Shauna Pender, a former Miss Florida and daytime soap actress, encouraged him to try modeling. He signed with Elite Model Management in Atlanta; his portfolio contained a few Polaroids and those aforementioned baseball cards. Enrolled in classes for commercial and film acting, he rediscovered his love for the bright lights, and learned to appreciate the similarities between the theater and the mound: "Being a former professional athlete, you're performing every day. You're not saying lines, but you're out there in front of people performing your job. That performance aspect of me translated into acting. I like performing in front of people, I love becoming the character."

He also learned to navigate the differences. "It's more of an instant gratification," he says of acting. "I know the punch lines, I know what I have to do to get the laughs, so if I do something right, I can hear that because [the audience is] right up on me."

With his nerve steeled in baseball's professional ranks, Pender now takes on a second difficult role -- playing Joey Edwards, a good ol' boy returning to Georgia to trade commitment vows with his male partner. Weekly, he takes center stage between the herculean cleavage of New York drag legend Lady Bunny and two-time SAG Award nominee Tina McKissick.

The character initially sat on Pender's 6-foot-5 frame awkwardly, like a one-size-fits-all draft day jersey. During early rehearsals, director John Gibson cautioned that he was "doing it like a straight man would do it," probably the first time he'd heard this from a coach. But Pender counts his growth here as one of the most valuable experiences of his young acting career. And he's dug in enough to make the role his own. "I think people can relate to my character because I've learned how to show the masculine, the regular guy, the average American."

When the play closes in May, Pender aims to continue changing roles, this time for the stage or screen. Maybe even horror movie. With such a gruesome medical history behind him, he's already lived a pretty convincing film treatment. Player X dreams his way into the big leagues. Player X suffers bruises and lacerations at the hands of unseen threat. Player X mends himself and returns to the top. A film credit itself, culled from the athlete's own past.