Heather and Rafael Matos first knew that their younger son, Cristian, was a special talent when in a coaches pitch game, the then-7-year-old launched a home run over the left field fence at Belleville Recreation Field, hitting an unsuspecting car some 175 feet away from home plate.
Next week, Cristian will get to show the whole baseball world what his family, friends and his hometown have known for a very long time.
Now 12, Matos is traveling more than 8,000 miles to represent Team USA at the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) U-12 Baseball World Cup in Tainan, Taiwan, scheduled for July 29 to Aug. 7.
Some 18 players from across the country were selected for Team USA July 1, with Matos, a lefty-hitting catcher, being the lone player selected from the Northeast.
“It was unreal. I was so nervous and when I was one of the last to be called, I was shaking,” said Cristian, who has grown to 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds. “Once I got called, it was a huge sigh of relief.”
“It’s definitely been great to be a part of it. You think about Little League and Little League World Series, events like that,” Rafael Matos said. “But playing for Team USA with those letters across your chest is something that’s really phenomenal. We’re so proud of him.”
Prior to the selection, Matos was one of 36 players who participated in the 12U National Team Trials over five days in Cary, North Carolina.
“Being in there with a bunch of kids from all over who were really good and my skill level made me pretty nervous about whether I would make it,” Cristian said. “I really didn’t know if I would make it because it was all really good kids out there.”
Cristian was first identified as a prospect in the spring in 2021 and was initially selected to a regional tryout event on Long Island. From there, he was selected to compete in the National Team Identification Series last summer in Cary, North Carolina.
“I think after I got past the regional tryouts that I realized how good I was,” Cristian said. “It actually clicked then and I was honored to be there.”
This summer, Cristian has been playing with Phoenix Baseball, a 14-U team based out of Tappan, New York. On Phoenix Baseball, Cristian gets to play with his older brother, Rafi, a first baseman/pitcher.
It is the first time the two brothers have gotten to play together regularly since Belleville Little League in 2019. The age gap between the two didn’t stop Cristian from wanting to play on the same team as Rafi, who just completed his freshman year at Belleville High School, appearing in three varsity games for the Buccaneers.
“(Rafi) has another team as well (Belleville as part of a High School Summer Developmental League), but he comes to play with us and that means a lot,” Cristian said. “As brothers, we have a strong bond both on and off the field.”
“I think him having Rafi as an older brother playing baseball really helped him. It made him work a little bit more and helped develop him because they would play catch together and normal childhood stuff,” Rafael said. “He would watch (Rafi’s) games. Having Rafi as an older brother definitely influenced him and helped him mature.”
But for now the two brothers will be separated as Cristian leaves New Jersey for California this week to meet up with Team USA before they head off to Taiwan. Due to Taiwan’s strict Covid-19 travel restrictions, Matos’ family will be staying in New Jersey, watching Cristian’s games on a live stream in the middle of the night because of a 12-hour time difference.
“It definitely feels a little weird, flying halfway across the world to play baseball,” Cristian said. “But I’m looking forward to it so much. The view from the window seat, spending time with my friends, I’m looking forward to it all.”
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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)