It was Spring Training 1985, and before reporting to Arizona with the rest of his Cubs teammates, star left fielder Gary Matthews was going somewhere he’d never been before.
It was a place he’d never even thought of visiting, or truthfully, really thought about at all. His manager Jim Frey figured it was the name of some player GM Dallas Green wanted the team to trade for.
But it was, in fact, a country, located more than 2,800 miles away from Chicago.
“Dallas didn’t really ask me, he just told me, ‘You’re going to Belize,'” Matthews said during a recent phone call with MLB.com.
Ownership had gotten word that the Central American paradise, scattered along the delectable waters of the Caribbean, had somehow developed a strong Cubs fan base — and they wanted to send one of their star players on a goodwill visit.
So, a bit apprehensive and nervous, Matthews boarded a flight.
He stopped in New Orleans before landing in Belize City where, as soon as he stepped off the plane, he was greeted by a giant, writhing mass of people. He was shocked.
The crowd continued to follow Matthews and his convoy through the town — growing by the minute with adoring cheers, handshakes and giant signs. It turned into a full-out parade for somebody who, let’s face it, played baseball on a mostly-losing franchise nearly a hemisphere away.
“The Pope and the Queen visited Belize,” Matthews said. “They all had parades, and my parade was second to the Pope. Everybody in the country had come out, people were out on the rafters. But how in God’s green earth do these people know about the Chicago Cubs?”
The Belizean love affair with the Cubs began back in 1981. Television came to the nation in the early 1980s and a local entrepreneurial couple, Arthur and Marie Hoare, formed their own station. The only problem was that they forgot to buy programming.
So, they figured out how to pirate and broadcast WGN, the local Chicago station that airs the Bulls, a few soap operas and, most importantly, Chicago Cubs games. For many years, it was the only channel that was available in homes, bars and restaurants around the country. All 162 North Sider games were there for Belize’s watching.
“As [WGN’s] signal was relayed into Belize City by the Hoares, ‘world and country’ were glued to their television sets to see the mighty Cubs win or lose (mostly lose),” wrote local politician Michael Finnegan back in 2013.
Nobody’s too sure why WGN was chosen. At the time, Chicago residents believed it was because of a sizable Belizean population in the city and the fact that the two regions shared the same time zone. WGN also probably proved one of the easier channels to steal. Either way, the fan base grew, even during losing seasons in the early ’80s. They had favorite players, they waved flags and they, of course, fell in love with Harry Caray.
”They tell me when Harry Caray comes on during the stretch, you can hear everybody up and down the street singing from their homes,” Matthews told The Chicago Tribune in ’85. “Aaaah, right. Let me hear yah … Ah, one. Ah, two … It`s unbelievable what great fans they are down there.”
Carlton Card, a Belize native who moved to Miami as an infant in 1978, but spent summers back home in the capital, remembers the Cubs just being constantly on.
“WGN was it,” Card says. “If you were going to Belize and you were watching television, and it was the daytime, it’s WGN and it’s the Cubs.”
Card became a big Mets fan after they won the 1986 World Series, but credits his first love and introduction to baseball to WGN’s Cubs broadcasts.
“Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace, The Hawk, and just the voice of Harry Caray every single day,” Card said, laughing. “When you’re a kid and you’re watching an American city [on TV], it looks like the most magical place you can imagine. It sounds weird, but if you’re seeing a sport that you’ve never seen before, and you have a character like Harry Caray describing it … seeing the ivy … that’s how you get captivated about what baseball is.”
Then, the Cubs actually got good. That’s where Matthews’ trip comes back into the picture.
Chicago won the division crown in 1984 and made its first playoff appearance in 39 years. They didn’t reach the World Series, but they’d made up some positive ground, and it was time for someone from the team to meet these Cubs fanatics way, way down south.
“There’s nothing quite like going down the street and seeing the people on both sides cheering,” Matthews said. “I was going like, ‘Holy Cow, what is going on?'”
Matthews, who’d finished in the top five of the NL MVP vote in ’84, stayed for a few days with the U.S. ambassador. He brought down bats and balls and gloves for the kids, enjoyed some of the delicious cuisine and spoke to an adoring crowd at Yabra Green — the city’s center.
“It gives me chills to even think about it now,” Matthews recalled. “I just thanked them for being Cub fans and said I couldn’t believe how many people came out. It was really emotional.”
Gary Matthews Sr. a king down in Belize pic.twitter.com/KfdTwW8fOf
— Matt Monagan (@MattMonagan) January 5, 2021
The Cubs were up and down (mostly down) for the years after Matthews’ visit, but 32 seasons later, in 2016, the impossible happened. Not Matthews, not Card, not any Cubs fan in or outside of Belize could’ve dreamed of actually seeing it in their lifetimes: Chicago’s lovable losers broke a 108-year drought and won the World Series.
Although WGN was now just one of many channels available in Belize and Cubs fanaticism wasn’t nearly as a high at it had been in those early days, a generation of Belizean Cubs fans was ecstatic. There was even a power blackout on the outlying island of Ambergris Caye — right before Rajai Davis’ soul-crushing home run. A local blogger believed it may have been because every single TV was tuned into the game and a fuse blew.
Alas, they found a way to figure out the final score — some by using MLB’s Gameday and some by simply holding their ears to their front doors in the hopes of hearing cheers.
Fans rejoiced after the last out.
CUBS WIN!!! CUBS WIN!!! CUBS WIN!!! Speechless right now ???#gocubs #cubs #worldseries #belize… https://t.co/YB5MqiIgiG
— Jose Luis Zapata (@joseluiszapata_) November 3, 2016
Murals went up.
Really feel like a @Cubs player or two should make a trip to #Belize and do some kind of meet and greet. Most popular team in this country by far. Felt very much at home here. #EverybodyIn pic.twitter.com/6AQhSZ4C6W
— Michael Bolling (@mikealexbolling) January 4, 2019
The aforementioned Finnegan went to the hospital after feeling some “amazing pain” in his back and legs. There was even a charming, police-escorted golf cart procession through the tiny streets of San Pedro. It didn’t rival Chicago’s parade in terms of people, but it made up for it in spirit.
Card, 36 at the time, realized a lifelong goal and actually went to Wrigley Field during the 2016 NLDS — his first ever trip to the Friendly Confines.
“Because of the ’80s and because of Belize and spending my summers watching Cubs baseball, it had always been a dream of mine to be at Wrigley,” Card says. “They lost to the Giants, so that stunk, but I got to experience those childhood memories and actually be at Wrigley. That whole thing kinda came together, like, this was coming full circle. Now, I’m the Belizean in Chicago during their World Series run and I get to be steeped in all things Cubs for the first time. … They were the reason why I really loved baseball.”
Matthews, a Phillies broadcaster after his playing career finished, is now retired and mostly out of the game. Although he hasn’t gone back to Belize since his visit in ’85, the memories still swirl around him.
“Yeah, I remember like it was yesterday believe it or not,” he said. “It was an honor for me, and more of an honor after I ended up leaving and thinking, ‘Man, this was pretty damn special.'”
Once he gets the COVID-19 vaccine, “Sarge” plans to venture back to the country with his son, former big leaguer Gary Matthews Jr., or maybe with good buddy and current Astros manager Dusty Baker. He wants to do some fishing and drop off some more baseball equipment — maybe to the kids of the kids he met in that friendly little plot of land he’d never heard of, but quickly fell in love with, decades ago.
Let’s hope there’s another welcome party waiting for him.
Go, @Cubs, Go!
Hey, @D_Ross3, what do you say?
Take a trip to Belize (2nd biggest base of Cubs fans in the world) today?#FlyTheW pic.twitter.com/hOboPRdZjO
— Belize Tourism Board (@belizevacation) November 4, 2016
Matt Monagan is a writer for MLB.com. In his spare time, he travels and searches Twitter for Wily Mo Peña news.