Obituary: Matt Turner (1967-2019)

RIP to Matt Turner, a former reliever whose promising career was cut short by Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He died on January 27 after a fourth bout with cancer. He was 51 years old. He played for the Florida Marlins (1993) and Cleveland Indians (1994).

William Matthew Turner was born in Lexington, Ky. on February 18, 1967. He attended school at Middle Georgia College and was signed by the Atlanta Braves as an undrafted free agent in 1986. His first few seasons in the minor leagues saw ERAs in the high 4s, 5s and even 6s, but starting in 1989, his effectiveness improved dramatically. He had a 2.44 ERA while pitching for the Durham Bulls that year, and he followed it up with a solid season split between AA and AAA in 1987. He struggled the following season and was traded to the Houston Astros organization. He was granted free agency at the end of the 1992 and signed a minor-league contract with the new expansion team, the Marlins. He was the first player with professional experience in the organization.

Turner had a lousy Spring Training and started in AAA Edmonton. He was brought up in April, and he became such a revelation that he was considered as a closer option should veterans Bryan Harvey or Trevor Hoffman be unavailable. In 55 games and 68 innings, he had a 4-5 record, 2.91 ERA and 1.191 WHIP. He fanned 59 batters. After seven years in the minors, he was establishing himself as a top-notch reliever.

“At the end of last year, I figured I was never going to get here,” he told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that June. “That’s why I was happy to sign with the Marlins.”

Turner was traded from the Marlins to the Indians on April 3, 1994 for reliever Jeremy Hernandez. He got off to a great start, achieving a 2.13 ERA in 9 games, with his first career save and a win. However, his fastball just wasn’t the same, and the Indians sent him to AAA. That is where doctors examined a couple of lumps in his groin that had been problematic since Spring Training with the Marlins. They diagnosed it as Hodgkin’s disease, but Cleveland doctors believe it was a very treatable illness.

Matt Turner and his wife Kathy at a 1994 press conference discussing his recent diagnosis with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Source: AP photo via Akron Beacon Journal, June 1, 1994.

“I have every intention of playing next year for Cleveland,” he said, per the Akron Beacon Journal. “I just look at this as another obstacle to hop over. Playing baseball has been my dream in life. I’m not going to give it up because of this.”

Turner missed the rest of 1994 while recovering from the chemotherapy treatment. He was cut by the Indians in May 1995 when his comeback attempt in AAA didn’t go well. He ended up injuring his elbow while trying to come back too soon, and he missed the 1996 season due to Tommy John surgery. He came back to pitch in 37 games for the independent Sioux City Explorers in 1997 and a couple of teams in the Kansas City Royals organization, but he struggled. His last appearances in pro ball came with two teams in the Mexican league in 2000.

For his MLB career, Turner went 5-5 with a save in 64 games. He sported a 2.79 ERA and struck out 64 batters in 80-2/3 innings.

Details of the rest of his life are a little spotty, because there has not been an official obituary published yet. I’ll update this piece with any new information. From memories that his friends have posted on Twitter, Turner suffered more recurrences of cancer in his life, beating them all except this last one. He was remembered for his heart and his competitiveness and also as a great teammate who kept the clubhouse loose.

A former teammate has started a GoFundMe campaign to help his family pay for his funeral expenses.

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