DAVENPORT, FLA. — DURING 11 years in professional baseball, pitcher Greg Mathews has seen his career take many turns, but none of them as curlicue screwy as the one that has led him back into a major-league clubhouse. With the regular major-leaguers now in the 217th day of a bitter strike, Mathews, once a starting World Series hurler, is in spring training. He's looking to land a job as a replacement player with the Kansas City (Mo.) Royals.
He says he doesn't want to take anyone's job, nor does he have any interest in playing once the strike is resolved.
''I'm using my talent to help with my education,'' he says forthrightly. The money the Royals pay him as a stand-in will help cover his graduate-school expenses. He is studying for a master's degree in media communications at Webster University in Webster Groves, Mo., hoping for a new career in sportscasting. At the same time, he is a husband and father of three young children.
The need to provide for his family has given Mathews the resolve to accept some of the scorn and ridicule directed at baseball's ''temp'' employees.
He says the press has inflamed the situation by portraying the fill-in players as a bunch of bumblers.
''The media has painted these replacement players as guys who fell off a beer truck, when that's far from the truth,'' he says while lacing up his cleats at the Royals' Baseball City training complex in central Florida. ''With few exceptions, these are professional athletes who are getting in shape like they have many times in the past. They know how to play the game.''
Mathews could use himself as supporting evidence. He broke into the major leagues in 1985 with the St. Louis Cardinals. He won 11 games that season, the most by a Cardinal rookie since 1971.
Then his performance began to oscillate and he moved back and forth between St. Louis and the team's top-level farm club in Louisville.
In 1987 he won the opening game of the National League Championship Series against San Francisco and started Game 4 of the World Series against Minnesota. He experienced arm problems, though, and had to be taken out in the fourth inning. From then on, injuries often hindered him. By 1993 he was out of American professional baseball and playing in Taiwan. Last summer he returned to St. Louis to play in a 30-and-over recreational league just for fun.
Anticipating that the strike will end by June, Mathews looks forward to operating a summer baseball school and conducting charitable baseball clinics at Busch Stadium.
''I have a passion for the game now more as a purist, more than as an entrepreneur trying to make money,'' he says. ''I've returned to the grass roots. I'm near the end of my career and can see the game for what it is.''
He's convinced that he and his fellow replacements will be gone and mostly forgotten soon after the strike ends. He's just as certain that the replacements are filling a very important role and may even deserve the gratitude of the striking players.
''I know I can still pitch at this caliber and contribute to the Royals' efforts to win a pennant,'' he says, explaining that all games using replacement players will count in the final 1995 standings. ''Once the strike is settled,'' he says, ''some team may already have a 10-game lead.''