COLUMBIA — Dreams don’t pay the bills.
Matt Lisle had a lot of time to realize that and keep talking himself out of giving up his dreams during the summer of 2010. He was spending many nights in the back of his 2008 Scion XB, which even with windows rolled down in California wasn’t a real comfortable place to be.
Bouncing from car to friends’ couches, bumming a shower wherever he could find it, Lisle knew what he wanted to do and how good he could be at it. A college pitcher turned high school baseball coach who loved the science of hitting, Lisle had gotten positive feedback from hitting gurus.
So what? He could be Ted Williams in knowledge but with no place to show it, he was Mario Mendoza.
Eight years from the Scion and four from putting every egg he had and a few he didn’t have into a rather small basket, Lisle can afford to smile about his journey. The hitting coach for a South Carolina softball team that smacked a program-record 61 home runs and scored 52 more runs than last year, Lisle is a successful coach, doting husband and father of five — six counting the baby that’s earned him more than half a million social media followers.
“From a coaching standpoint, as much as I love working with hitters, the most life-giving thing to me is working with a team,” Lisle said before the Gamecocks hosted their first NCAA Regional since 2007. “I think a lot of people still look at me, and us, as a fluke. But our mission going forward is to prove everyone wrong.”
Every USC batter knows exactly what to expect. That’s what Lisle does — crunch numbers and tailor them to every swing.
“He sends us each an individual text before each game to give us a plan for each pitcher,” said Alyssa VanDerveer, who has 14 homers this season. “There are sometimes situational at-bats, but we try to keep the same mentality.”
That’s “Do Damage” and “OBP is Life.”
“He liked what I did, so basically he told me to, ‘Get hit, or get on base, somehow,’” noted shortstop Kenzi Maguire, second on the team with a .344 batting average.
The “thwack” of batting practice behind him is the perfect soundtrack. Motioning toward a large TV above a Star Trek-looking machine, Lisle breaks it down.
“It tracks exit speed, launch angle, distance, everything. I created the 80 Mile-Per-Hour Club,” Lisle said of his $22,000 HitTrax. “You want to be in that with exit speed. The first week, we had one or two people. Now we got eight.”
Lisle studied each stance, swing and statistics. It boiled down to knowing what the best pitches are for each to hit, and forcing pitchers to throw it.
“(Longtime pro manager) Jerry Weinstein once told me, ‘You can’t go to Florida to hunt polar bears,’” Lisle said. “What that meant to me was, if Mackenzie Boesel’s hot spot is middle-in, but the pitcher never throws that pitch, how do we reconcile that?”
Lisle spent a lot of nights dodging the repo men who wanted the Scion back. He was accepting groceries and diapers from friends.
A volunteer softball spot at Oregon sounded good and Lisle figured he’d make up the lack of salary by giving private hitting lessons.
“I found zero lessons,” Lisle said. “I burned every ounce of savings. I told the coach I couldn’t make it through the year.”
Back to California. The family moved in with the in-laws. He was driving a 2001 Hyundai Elantra he got for free “because it was such a piece of crap.”
“I got a job at Paychex, selling payroll door-to-door to small businesses. At the same time, a job opened up at (his alma mater) Cal State East Bay,” he said. “I double-dipped. Worked all day long in a shirt and tie, left at 3 o’clock for practice and traveled on the weekends.”
He felt he could offer so much to hitters of any age, baseball and softball, but there was no capital to do it.
“I told my friends I wanted to come up with hitting drill videos, I wanted to call it The Hitting Vault,” Lisle said. “My best friend said, ‘What’s it’s gonna take?’ I said, ‘I can do it for $4,000.’”
The check was written on the spot. Lisle took it knowing if this didn’t work, his best friend would be just another guy.
“I did all the videos in two hours in a batting cage I rented from a friend. I narrated it. A friend did the drills,” he said. “And it blew up.”
At 50 bucks a pop, Lisle got 1,000 orders in the first month. He paid his friend back right away. He bought his wife, Jessica, a desperately needed new car.
And then thought of how to really promote his program.
“Of the hitting gurus out there, they were all older guys with no social media. For me it was a strategy of, ‘I’m going to give away everything I know. I’m going to do it as telling a story from the three identities I think I have — me as a dad, me as a coach, me as a fan and player of baseball,’” Lisle said.
He has 128,000 Twitter followers and nearly triple that on Facebook.
He was still interested in coaching. He turned down a spot at UNLV, accepted as an assistant at Santa Clara, then became head softball coach at NAIA Menlo. They were winning, but The Hitting Vault was doing well and he wanted to repay Jessica and the children, who had gone along with the nomadic life of a coach.
Between the Vault and private hitting instruction for major leaguers, the family could live without him coaching. He gave it up.
Until another chance came along.
“I wanted this job,” Lisle said, USC’s logo winking from his shirt. “I emailed coach (Lisa) Navas, I told her to tell Bev ‘if we don’t finish in the top five of every offensive category in the SEC, I will give her back my paycheck.’”
USC coach Beverly Smith’s contacts extolled the guy’s prowess, so she called him. Lisle flew from Atlanta to Columbia before riding shotgun as Smith drove back to Atlanta to recruit.
“What should have been a three-hour ride took almost six because of traffic. It really came down to I enjoyed being around him and talking to him was easy,” Smith said. “He got out of the car and I thought, ‘I really like that guy. He’d be a good fit here.’”
He got to keep his paycheck, too. In SEC play, the Gamecocks were top-five in everything but on-base percentage, where they were sixth. They led the league in homers, doubles, total bases and slugging while ranking second in RBIs and third in average.
USC’s 45 wins are the most since 2002. Any player who wondered about this kooky new approach to hitting quickly embraced it.
“When you can say to them, ‘I want you to do this,’ and they can see the result, that’s when they buy in,” Lisle said. “It’s like as a coach, if you don’t have success, you’re not going to have a job.”
He has one here as long as he wants it. While Lisle admitted to wanting to be a head coach again someday, he also pointed out he’s only worked with the Gamecocks for one fall. Give him another year and this team could be pointed toward the Women’s College World Series — not that it’s not already.
USC begins its postseason at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Lisle’s youngest child, Crosby, turns one on Friday. Lisle will enjoy the party, eat some cake and hop in his 2018 Honda Accord Sport to drive to Beckham Field.
He always did like Hondas.
Roomy back seat.